First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

I’ve just finished A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khalid Hosseini, a wonderful, heartbreaking book but now I feel in need of something lighter and more frivolous to read. High Rising by Angela Thirkell may be that book (one of my 20 books for Summer).

Blurb:

Successful lady novelist Laura Morland and her boisterous young son Tony set off to spend Christmas at her country home in the sleepy surrounds of High Rising. But Laura’s wealthy friend and neighbour George Knox has taken on a scheming secretary whose designs on marriage to her employer threaten the delicate social fabric of the village. Can clever, practical Laura rescue George from Miss Grey’s clutches and, what’s more, help his daughter Miss Sibyl Knox to secure her longed-for engagement?

Utterly charming and very funny, High Rising is irresistible comic entertainment.

It begins:

The headmaster’s wife twisted herself round in her chair to talk to Mrs Morland, who was sitting in the row just behind her.

‘I can’t make it out,’ she said reflectively, ‘why all the big boys seem to be at the bottom of preparatory schools and the small boys at the top. All those lower boys who got prizes were quite large, average children, but when we get to the upper forms they all look about seven, and undersized at that. Look at the head of the Remove for instance – he is just coming up the platform steps now.’

On the back cover it’s described as:

Irresistibly entertaining and witty, High Rising, originally published in 1933, was the first of Angela Thirkell’s celebrated classic comedies.

What do you think? If you’ve read it did you find it irresistibly entertaining and witty?

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree StreetNatasha Pulley’s first novel made a great impact on me from the start of the book. It is one of those books that I enjoyed very much, but don’t feel that I can really do it justice in a blog post. Even after a second reading I’m not at all sure I understand some of it. It’s long, complicated, packed with detail and an awful lot happens in it.

So instead of me trying to write something coherent about it I’ve copied the synopsis from the inside cover:

In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.

As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.

My thoughts:

These are just a few thoughts that struck me both as I was reading the book and later thinking about it. It’s a mixture of historical fact and fantasy set in Victorian times, both in London and Japan, following the lives of the main characters, Thaniel Stapleton, Keita Mori and Grace Carrow. I like to know what is historical fact and what is the author’s own creation. So I was pleased to read in her Acknowledgements, that Natasha Pulley explains that there is some historical accuracy and cites Lee Jackson’s Dictionary of Victorian London for resources on the early days of the London Underground, the Knightsbridge Japanese show village, the bombing of Scotland Yard and numerous other interesting things.  (As I read the book I was very tempted to leave the story to find out more about these topics, but the story drew me on and I left them for later.)

I was completely convinced by the setting in a different time in a world that was familiar and yet so different. I  liked the writing style, although in parts it’s a bit ‘clunky’ and the use of ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘they’ or ‘them’ made it a bit difficult to follow, but this is only a minor quibble. I also liked the characterisation and how the characters’ history was revealed and how their personalities were developed. Keita Mori is an interesting character and as I read my opinion of him kept changing – just who is he? He is an enigma, why is he living in London, is he the bomb maker, does he in fact know what is going to happen, is he a magician? He baffled and confused me as much as he baffled and confused the other characters.

Equally fascinating are the sections set in Japan; Grace’s story, her research into luminiferous ether (a bit hard to follow), her relationship with Akira Matsumoto, the elegant son of a Japanese nobleman; the Japanese show village in Hyde Park where Gilbert and Sullivan went to research for the Mikado; the early days of the London Underground; and of course the clockwork inventions, in particular Katsu, the clockwork octopus.

There is so much in this book, so many passages I underlined in my e-book, so many intertwining stories and lines that I have not mentioned – politics, the Fenians, bombs, the workings of the Home and Foreign Offices, suffragettes, racism, and class snobbery – I could go on and on. It may seem that this is a hotch-potch of a book, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it. In fact I loved it both for its historical settings and for its ingenuity, producing a fantastical tale that occupied my mind during and after my reading.

I reserved The Watchmaker of Filigree Street at the library but before it was available the e-book was on offer on Amazon, so I ended up reading from both editions. And in doing so, I can now see the benefits of both – I can underline in an e-book and make notes without any damage to the book and as it has X-Ray it’s easy to find passages about the characters and places etc. But the physical book is a joy to read – the text is set in Bell, originally cut for John Bell in 1788, and the cover is beautiful.

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

A close-up of the hard back front cover showing the cut-out of the watch face

and the inside cover has this map:

The Watchmaker map P1020045

This book also fits so well into the Once Upon a Time Challenge in the Fantasy Genre. I’ve seen it described as ‘steampunk’ but I’m not at all sure what that is – to me it’s historical fantasy.

Short Story Sunday: The Snow Queen

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child in my mother’s book: P1010936Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

The Snow Queen was one of my favourite stories as a child and I read it many times. So, I have been holding back from reading it now in case I found that the magical experience was no longer there. However, I felt I really wanted to read it this week and told myself that I would stop if it wasn’t as entrancing as before. Of course I read all of it and if it wasn’t quite as magical it was still entrancing.

I wasn’t surprised that I’d forgotten some of the details, but my memories of the way evil came into the world when the magic looking-glass was shattered were vivid and correct. The pieces let loose in the world distorted whatever was reflected in it, so that whatever was good and beautiful dwindled to almost nothing and whatever was worthless stood out boldly. They entered into men’s eyes, so that they saw only evil, or into their hearts, turning them to lumps of ice. Some were made into panes of window glass and some into spectacles. Some are still flying about in the air even today.

I remembered well the two main characters, the childhood friends, Kay and Gerda, and how Kay was changed when his heart and eyes were pierced by pieces of the magic glass  and how he followed  the beautiful Snow Queen and was whisked away to her ice palace.  I also remembered Gerda’s search for him, but not all the detail of how she was enchanted by a strange old woman, who took her into her strange little house, and how the roses and other flowers brought back her memories.

I had forgotten about the Prince and Princess and the Ravens who helped her on her way to look for Kay and the Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman who also helped her. More memorable was The Little Robber Girl who stopped her robber-mother from killing and eating Gerda.

It was the chapter on Kay in the Snow Palace that was most vivid in my memories and it didn’t disappoint me. Kay’s heart was by then just like a lump of ice and he was almost black with the cold and he didn’t recognise Gerda until her tears penetrated his heart, melted the ice and dissolved the broken glass and washed all the pieces of glass from his eyes. It was Gerda’s love that saved him. As the Finland Woman says:

I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her, and how barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world. She cannot receive power from us, that is in her own heart, and consists in her being a good, innocent child.

What I hadn’t noticed as a child was that this is not only a story of good against evil but also about love versus reason and logic. At first when the ice has entered Kay’s heart and eyes he becomes focussed on science, looking at the snow flakes through a magnifying glass to see their structure and as the Snow Queen lures him from home he couldn’t pray but could only recite his multiplication tables; he could say how many square miles were in the country as well as the number of inhabitants.

The task the Snow Queen gave him whilst she was away from the Palace was the ice-game of understanding to fit together large pieces of ice to make figures of ‘the highest importance’. But he was unable to make the word ‘Eternity’, which the Snow Queen had promised she would give him the whole world if he succeeded. He thought and thought about it until his brain almost cracked. It was only when the ice had melted from his heart and out of his eyes that the pieces of ice danced and formed the letters of the word so that he was able to leave the palace.

20 Books of Summer 2016

20 Bks of Summer 2106

Cathy at Cathy 746 Books has an annual challenge to read twenty books over the summer months starting on 1 June 2016 and running until 5 September 2016 – that’s 7 books a month! The aim is to read what is already on your shelves.

Last year I didn’t complete this challenge, even though I only went for 10 books, reading just 6 of the books I’d selected. So I must be mad to try to read 20 books this year. My problem is not reading that number of books, but sticking to the books I’ve chosen. I’ve found before that as soon as I list books in this way I want to read books that aren’t on my list!

Well, I decided to have a go anyway and walked round my bookshelves pulling out these books without spending much time thinking about my selection.

I’m not going to attempt to read them in any particular order. From top to bottom they are (click on the titles for a link to their Goodreads description):

20 Summer Bks1

20 Summer Bks2

Now, the question is, will I be able to stick to this list? I’m going to try! But I expect I’ll get diverted by other books before the end of the challenge – so be it.

Have you read any of these books (I’m sure many of you have), are there any that you think I should definitely read, or any that I should avoid? Do let me know what you think.

My Friday Post: Housekeeping

Book Beginnings ButtonEvery 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.

This week’s book is Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

It begins:

My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs Sylvia Foster, and then when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled of her daughter, Mrs Sylvia Fisher.

Friday 56

A sad opening, I thought. Two young children passed from pillar to post.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

Sylvie put her hands in her pockets. “I think I should stay for a while,” she said. The aunts are too old. I think it’s best for now, at least.”

See my previous post for the synopsis.

My Week in Books: 25 May 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

IMG_1384-0

A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

  • Now: I often read several books at once and manage to keep them all on the go, but every now and then this doesn’t work well and I end up reading just one of them, leaving the others. This is what has happened these last few weeks as I read The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (see the next section of this post). I was also reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre and A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr. But as I’m now a bit vague about what was happening in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, I’ve decided I need to start it again. But not right now, so I’ve put it back on the shelves to read later.

But, I’m still reading Andrew Marr’s A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr, basically Britain after the end of the Second World War up to 2006, with an added introduction in the paperback edition written in 2008. I’ve read up to page 79 so far out of 672 pages. It will be a while  before I finish this book!

Blurb:

A History of Modern Britain confronts head-on the victory of shopping over politics. It tells the story of how the great political visions of New Jerusalem or a second Elizabethan Age, rival idealisms, came to be defeated by a culture of consumerism, celebrity and self-gratification. In each decade, political leaders think they know what they are doing, but find themselves confounded. Every time, the British people turn out to be stroppier and harder to herd than predicted.

Throughout, Britain is a country on the edge – first of invasion, then of bankruptcy, then on the vulnerable front line of the Cold War and later in the forefront of the great opening up of capital and migration now reshaping the world. This history follows all the political and economic stories, but deals too with comedy, cars, the war against homosexuals, Sixties anarchists, oil-men and punks, Margaret Thatcher’s wonderful good luck, political lies and the true heroes of British theatre.

I’ve just started to read Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson alongside Marr’s book. It’s looking promising so far – I’m on page 26 of 219.

Blurb:

Acclaimed on publication as a contemporary classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and Lucille, orphans growing up in the small desolate town of Fingerbone in the vast northwest of America.

Abandoned by a succession of relatives, the sisters find themselves in the care of Sylvie, the remote and enigmatic sister of their dead mother. Steeped in imagery of the bleak wintry landscape around them, the sisters’ struggle towards adulthood is powerfully portrayed in a novel about loss, loneliness and transience.

  • Then: I’ve recently finished The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. I don’t know yet how I’m going to review this book, as even after a second reading I’m not at all sure I understand some of it. It’s long and complicated and an awful lot happens in it. I needed to concentrate, which is why I had to stop reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy at the same time – too much detail in both books!

That said, I enjoyed it immensely, maybe the concentrated reading is one reason, but I also loved the fantastic clockwork inventions and historical details, the settings and the characterisations.

Blurb:

In 1883, Thaniel Steepleton returns to his tiny flat to find a gold pocketwatch on his pillow. But he has worse fears than generous burglars; he is a telegraphist at the Home Office, which has just received a threat for what could be the largest-scale Fenian bombing in history.

When the watch saves Thaniel’s life in a blast that destroys Scotland Yard, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori – a kind, lonely immigrant who sweeps him into a new world of clockwork and music. Although Mori seems harmless at first, a chain of unexpected slips soon proves that he must be hiding something.

Meanwhile, Grace Carrow is sneaking into an Oxford library dressed as a man. A theoretical physicist, she is desperate to prove the existence of the luminiferous ether before her mother can force her to marry.

As the lives of these three characters become entwined, events spiral out of control until Thaniel is torn between loyalties, futures and opposing geniuses.

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius – and a clockwork octopus – collide.

  • Next: 

It might be Coming Home by Sue Gee, set in 1947 India on the brink of independence as an English couple are ‘coming home’ from India, attempting to make their way in a changed Britain. This might fit in well with my reading of Andrew Marr’s book – or it might not.

Or I might read something completely different!

Short Story Sunday: The Shepherdess and the Sweep

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

This will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’m reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936This week it’s another fairy tale that I don’t remember reading before – The Shepherdess and the Sweep.

Unlike The Rose Elf, the story I read last week, The Shepherdess and the Sweep is not a gruesome story, but a story of love, romance, and bravery.

The Shepherdess and the Sweep are two china figures who fall in love but their love is threatened by a strange looking carved satyr the children called the Goatsleg-Highadjutant-general-militarycommandant, as he had goat’s legs, short horns and a long beard and was constantly grinning. He stood on top of a very old wooden cabinet, looking down on the beautiful Shepherdess on the table opposite and wanted her for his wife. There is also a bigger china figure than the little couple – a big old Chinese, who could nod his head. He claims authority over the Shepherdess and says she will marry the satyr that night.

So the two little china figures decide to leave the table and venture out into the wide world. In their desperation to escape they decide to climb the chimney, but when they get to the top the Shepherdess is overcome with fear and cries “This is too much” she sobbed, “That I can never bear. The world is too large; oh, were I but back again on the table under the looking glass!”

Illustration from “Fairy Tales, 1850” by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen’s first illustrator (from Wikipedia)

Spoiler follows – don’t read the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how this story ends.

The sweep can’t console her and so they climb back down even though he thought it was foolish. But they find that the Chinese figure in his attempt to follow them had fallen and broken into three pieces. The family mended him but his head, which had rolled far off into a corner of the room had to be riveted onto his neck, so that he could no longer nod. He was too proud to tell the Satyr and so when he asked if he were to have the Shepherdess or not, the Chinese figure was silent. And the little couple remained together. So, a happy ending for this tale.

Inside of Me by Hazel McHaffie

I’ve read one of Hazel McHaffie’s books in the past – Over My Dead Body and was impressed by the way she weaves facts into her fiction so seamlessly that it doesn’t detract from the story. So, when she asked if I would like to read Inside of Me I didn’t hesitate to say yes please. And I wasn’t disappointed. I think this is an excellent book and once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop, keen to find out what was going to happen next.

Hazel McHaffie’s novels all cover medical ethics issues and the issues in Inside of Me concern body image, in particular, but not exclusively, about anorexia; identity, and relationships. There is also a mystery – teenage girls are going missing, the latest one being Maria aged sixteen, last seen walking alone along Regent’s Park Canal. Tonya Grayson is worried, no terrified is a better description, that her missing husband, Victor, could be involved. But the police are convinced he is dead; his clothes were found neatly folded in a beach, although his body was never found. India, their daughter, who was eight at the time, believes, even after seven years, that he is still alive, reinforced by hearing his voice in a crowded London station, the day after Maria was reported missing.

The narrative, told in the first person, switches between Tonya and India living in Scotland, and Chris, who works in a florist shop in London, mourning the loss of a daughter. Chris, after reading the newspaper report about the missing teenager, spots Maria at a local car boot sale, offers to help and ends up taking her home, anxious about her safety.

India is anorexic, but won’t accept the truth, either that her father is dead or that she has a weight problem. Tonya tries to help her but cannot get through to her and for most of the book seems completely out of her depth, unable to move forward herself. She is plagued with doubts about Victor and his relationship with India, which had been very close. India’s best friend, Mercedes is also obsessed with her weight and encourages India both to find her father and to take even more drastic ways to gain her target weight.

Hazel McHaffie has got right inside each character’s mind, making this a compelling and convincing story. And it is a gripping story, easy to read, but by no means a comfortable read, in turns emotional and troubling. It conveys the complex dilemmas of living with eating disorders, problems with body image and difficult family relationships, issues with control and coping with emotional disturbance, obsessions and compulsive behaviour. Added to all this there is the mystery of what happened to Victor – his pile of clothes on the beach reminded me of Reginald Perrin (from the TV series  in the 1970s). I think it is a wonderful book and I don’t think I’ve read another novel like it. I’ve only touched its surface in this post!

  • Paperback: 242 pages
  • Publisher: VelvetEthics Press (5 Mar. 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 099262312X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0992623128
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Hazel McHaffie is a Scottish author. For details of her background and qualifications as a nurse, midwife, PhD in Social Sciences and Research Fellow in Medical Ethics see her website, where she also lists her awards, life changing experiences, and more personal stuff such as her character traits, addictions (including good books), and hobbies. She also writes a most interesting blog.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (published in 2015) contains memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approaches her 100th year (she was born in 1917). I quoted the opening paragraph of this book and a teaser paragraph in an earlier post, First Chapter, First Paragraph.

It’s only a short book (168 pages), but it covers a wide range of Diana Athill’s memories, many images of beautiful places, and the friends and lovers she has known. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life.

She writes about her Great Grandfather’s garden at Ditchingham Hall in Norfolk, which she used to love visiting in the 1920s and 1930s, when her grandparents lived there. Her writing is so clear and precise, describing in detail its exact layout and expressing her delight in her memories of it.

In other chapters she describes post-war life and her visits to Florence, and in particular the Club Méditerranée in Corfu in the 1950s; her experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, where she was struck by the disparity between the local people and the tourists/incomers; and the miscarriage when she was in her early 40s, when she nearly died. It was heart breaking to read this remarkably candid account both about what happened and how she felt, her detachment, her resentment that she had lost the baby, even her relief, and finally her gratitude that she was still alive, and her love of life:

‘I AM ALIVE.’ 

It was enough.

It was everything. It was filling me to the brim with pure and absolute joy, a feeling more intense than any I had known before. (page 87)

It is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. She writes about her decision to move into a home, persuaded by a friend who lived there and about how much she enjoys living there. And her main luxury now is her wheelchair, which she finds has unexpected benefits, such as when she was at an art exhibition – the crowds fell away from her in her wheelchair and she was able to lounge in perfect comfort in front of Matisse’s red Dance.

Of course, she writes about death and dying, as ‘death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now.’ She doesn’t find this alarming, and remembers when she was close to death after her miscarriage that her feelings were of acceptance: ‘Oh well, if I die, I die‘. Death is not something she fears, although she has some degree of anxiety at the process of dying and recognises that whereas it’s ‘unwise to expect an easy death, it is not unreasonable to hope for one.

This book has given me much to think about, including this paragraph:

Looking at things is never time wasted. If your children want to stand and stare, let them. When I was marvelling at the beauty of a painting or enjoying a great view it did not occur to me that the experience, however intense, would be of value many years later. But there it has remained, tucked away in hidden bits of my mind, and now it comes out, shouldering aside even the most passionate love affairs and the most satisfying achievements, to make a very old woman’s idle days pleasant instead of boring. (pages 5 – 6)

I loved it.

The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers

Once more I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, so this is a short post with brief thoughts on The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers. I enjoyed it immensely.
This is a beautiful book, beautifully written, with the character of Agnès Morel at its centre. Agnès was found as a baby in a straw shopping basket, wrapped in a white tablecloth, with just a single turquoise earring in the bottom of the basket that may or may not indicate her parentage. She was brought up by the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy at Evreux. It tells of how Agnes became the cleaner of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres, in central France, north of Paris, and not only of the cathedral but also a cleaner for other residents of the town.

So, there is a mystery about her origins and also about her life before she arrived in Chartres. Moving between the past and the present, the details are slowly revealed. There are many characters, some likeable people including the Abbé Paul, Professor Jones, who teaches Agnes to read, Philippe Nevers, and Alain Fleury, who works on the cathedral restoration and some unlikeable characters such as Madame Beck and Sister (later Mother) Veronique whose interfering ways cause Agnes such a lot of trouble. All are convincing characters with depth.

I liked it all, the slow build up as Agnes’s history unfolds, the interaction of the characters and the description and history of the cathedral also added to my enjoyment of the book.

Short Story Sunday: The Rose Elf

Short story questI’m taking part in Carl’s Once Upon a Time event, specifically in the Short Story Quest, which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of the four genres of Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, during the course of any weekend, or weekends, during the challenge. Ideally, posting about your short story readings on Sundays or Mondays, but this is not strictly necessary.

I’m beginning this Sunday, with what I hope will be a weekly event for me, until the end of the event on 21 June. I’ll be reading some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales – I first read a lot of the tales as a child. Andersen was a Danish author, born in 1805 in Odense. He was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, as well as fairy tales. Some of his most famous fairy tales include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. He died in 1875.

I’m reading from my mother’s book: P1010936

beginning with The Rose-Elf.

I don’t remember reading this story before – and I think I would if I had read it, because it’s such a gruesome story. The Rose-Elf is very short and surprised me by the horror of the events it unfolds.

It begins by describing the Rose-Elf, who is so small he can’t be seen by human eyes. He is a beautiful creature, with two transparent wings reaching from his shoulders to the soles of his feet, making him look like an angel. He lives, as you would suppose in a rose tree, having little rooms behind each rose petal:

‘… what delicious scent filled all his apartments, and how beautifully clear and bright were the walls, for they were the delicate, pale red rose leaves themselves.’

He danced on the wings of butterflies, walked along the veins of leaves, which he looked upon as roads. But one day the weather grew cold and the leaves closed before he could get back inside the roses, so he flew to a honeysuckle for shelter and here he came across a pair of young lovers – a handsome young man and a charming girl. It’s at this point that the story moves from a cosy fairy tale that you would be happy to read to very small children into something dark and chilling. For the girl has a jealous, wicked brother who plots to get rid of the young man and kills him.

The girl is heartbroken and the Rose-Elf who witnesses the murder of her lover, does what he can to help her but this is a tragedy. It’s not an ‘and they all lived happily ever after’ ending. The horror is not in the actual killing but in what happens to the corpse afterwards.

The Queen of the bees hums her praise of the Rose-Elf saying ‘how beneath the smallest leaf dwells one who can expose and avenge crime.’

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

I recently read Crystal Nights: a Scandinavian mystery by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, who kindly sent me an e-version of the ARC of her book. The Danish edition of the book, Krystalnætter, won a national competition in 2013.

Once I started reading Crystal Nights I was hooked. It begins with an extract from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, a fairy tale about the struggle between good and evil, when a magic mirror was smashed into many pieces, which then entered the eyes, hearts and minds of people infecting them with evil.

Crystal Nights moves between events in Germany in 1938 to Kalum, a fictional village in Denmark, in the 1960s. In Berlin in 1938 Jewish families, including the Stein family, Simon, his wife Sara, and Miriam and Isaac, their two young children flee from the events of Krystallnacht, the “night of broken glass”.  Their journey doesn’t get them to safety though and ends with Sara desperate as her son becomes dangerously ill and Simon refuses to get medical help.

Moving on to the 1960s in Kalum, the story divides into the years 1963 and 1967. In 1963 a middle-aged smallholder from Brook Farm, north of Kalum is killed in a road accident. The relevance of this death only becomes apparent towards the end of the book. In 1967 a young boy, Lars-Ole disappears. His mother believes he had gone to stay with his father, but eventually everybody except for his friend Niels, assumes he is dead although his body has not been found. Niels finds Lars-Ole’s notebook, in which he had written some coded messages and sets out to discover what has happened to him, putting himself into great danger.

I particularly liked the comparison between Andersen’s fairy tale and the events of Krystallnicht and I think the characters of both Lars-Ole and Niels are well-drawn, with the village setting in the 1960s particularly convincing. I was carried away by the story, a story of how evil touched so many lives with such terrible consequences and how by patience and perseverance the truth was revealed.

You can see photos and maps showing the area in this picture companion to the book.

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 820 KB
  • Print Length: 187 pages
  • Publisher: Candied Crime; 1 edition (6 May 2015)
  • Source: Review copy from the author

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

The idea for March and April in HeavenAli’s Virginia Woolf Read-a-long was to read one or more of: The Voyage Out, Night and Day (Virginia Woolf’s first and second novels) or Between the Acts which was her final novel. This was just the reminder I needed to get The Voyage Out down from my bookshelves where it’s been sitting unread for years.

This post is far too long, but one reason for writing this blog is to record what I think of a book and what I want to remember about it – this post only touches on that even at this length! There is so much more to be said about it.

I’ve not written much about the plot. This is the Synopsis from the back cover of my copy (published by Penguin in 1992):

The Voyage Out opens with a party of English people aboard the Euphrosyne, bound for South America. Among them is Rachel Vinrace, a young girl, innocent and wholly ignorant of the world of politics and society, books, sex, love and marriage. She is a free spirit half-caught, momentarily and passionately, by Terence Hewet, an aspiring writer met in Santa Marina. But their engagement is to end abruptly, and tragically.

Background to the novel:

In 1913 Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) had been suffering ill health for some time – depression,  nervous breakdowns and anorexia – when her half-brother George Duckworth published The Voyage Out in 1915. She had started writing it years earlier and had revised it several times before finalising it in 1912 and 1913.

I don’t like to read the introduction of a book first as often it gives away elements of the plot that I’d rather not know in advance, but I think that this paragraph does help to explain much that I wondered about as I read the book. But if you don’t want to know just skip this next paragraph.

In the introduction to the book, Jane Wheare wrote:

A knowledge of Woolf’s life will certainly deepen our response to all her work. Amongst many other details from the young Virginia Woolf’s experience that appear in fictional form in The Voyage Out one can single out her bouts of mental illness, on which she drew for the description of Rachel’s  fever; the voyage which she made to Spain and Portugal with her brother Adrian in the spring of 1905, her sister Vanessa’s illness and her brother Thoby’s death from typhoid in 1906; and her interest on feminism. (page xiii)

My thoughts:

I finished reading it a short time ago, but have found it difficult to write about it. It is an intriguing book, beginning in a leisurely fashion as Mr and Mrs Ambrose (Rachel’s aunt and uncle) stroll down the Strand to the Embankment on their way to board the ship, Euphrosyne  and yet there is tension in the air and Mrs Ambrose has tears rolling down her face. This tension and sense of underlying trouble and anxiety continues throughout the book.

It begins mid-stream, as it were, with little background at first about the characters or about why the people are on board the Euphrosyne. It is only when the ship arrives at Santa Marina (a fictional place) that Woolf explains why they are going there; and their relationships are slowly revealed through their conversations and actions. The Dalloways make a brief appearance in the book when they spend a short time aboard the ship, leaving before the ship reaches Santa Marina.

I was surprised at just how naive Rachel is for a young woman of 24, even though she had been brought up by her two aunts. Helen Ambrose is shocked, writing about her niece in a letter to a friend, criticising the current methods of education:

This girl, though twenty-four, had never heard that men desired women, and until I explained it did not know how children were born. (page 59)

In some ways this is a coming-of -age novel and Rachel’s actions and reactions are the focus of the book. In it Woolf explores the nature of Rachel’s mind, her obsessions and beliefs and through it her own thoughts about depression, suicide, death and the meaning of life. It’s a huge subject, at times celebrating the wonder and beauty of life and at other times plunging down into the hopelessness and despair that some of the characters experience.

I knew from the book’s description that it ends in tragedy and I wondered as I read what form it would take. But even so, I was taken aback at the desperate sadness of it – it was draining!

Some quotations:

On religion: Mrs Dalloway is talking to Helen Ambrose – “I always think religion’s like collecting beetles,” she said, summing up the discussion as she went up the stairs with Helen. “One person has a passion for black beetles; another hasn’t; it’s no good arguing about it.” (Page 33)

On politics: Mr Dalloway (a politician) talking about a suffragette sitting outside the house (House of Commons): “My good creature, you’re only in the way where you are. You’re hindering me, and you’re doing no good to yourself.” And later in the conversation he says: “Nobody can condemn the utter folly and futility of such behaviour more than I do: and as for the whole agitation, well! may I be in my grave before a woman has a right to vote in England! That’s all I say.” (page 24)

Mr Ambrose replies: “I don’t care a fig one way or t’other. If any creature is so deluded as to think that a vote does him or her any good, let him have it. He’ll soon learn better.”

On women:  St. John Hirst speaking, “Just consider: it’s the beginning of the twentieth century, and until a few years ago no woman had ever come out by herself and said things at all.” …

It’s the man’s view that’s represented, you see. Think of a railway train: fifteen carriages for men who want to smoke. Doesn’t it make your blood boil? If I were a woman I’d blow someone’s brains out. Don’t you laugh at us a great deal? Don’t you think it’s all humbug? (page 139)

There is much more I could quote on women’s suffrage in this book.

On England in June – an example of Woolf’s descriptive writing: The thought of England was delightful, for they would see the old things freshly; it would be England in June, and there would be June nights in the country; and the nightingales singing in the lanes, into which they would steal when the room grew hot; and there would be English meadows gleaming with water and set with stolid cows, and clouds dipping low and trailing across the green hills.

and comparing it with South America:

… “Lord, how good it is to think of lanes, muddy lanes, with brambles and nettle, you know, and real grass fields, and farmyards with pigs and cows, and men walking beside carts with pitchforks – there’s nothing to compare with that here – look at the stony red earth, and the bright blue sea, and the glaring white houses – how tired one gets of it! And the air without a stain or a wrinkle. I’d give anything for a sea mist.” (pages 138-9)

A note about the cover

I think the cover is striking. It’s from a painting by Roger Fry – Roquebrune and Monte Carlo from Palm Beach, in the City of Glasgow Art Gallery.

Roger Eliot Fry (14 December 1866 – 9 September 1934) was an English painter and critic, and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. Establishing his reputation as a scholar of the Old Masters, he became an advocate of more recent developments in French painting, to which he gave the name Post-Impressionism. He was the first figure to raise public awareness of modern art in Britain, and emphasised the formal properties of paintings over the “associated ideas” conjured in the viewer by their representational content. He was described by the art historian Kenneth Clark as “incomparably the greatest influence on taste since Ruskin … In so far as taste can be changed by one man, it was changed by Roger Fry”.[1] The taste Fry influenced was primarily that of theAnglophone world, and his success lay largely in alerting an educated public to a compelling version of recent artistic developments of the Parisian avant-garde. (from wikipedia)

Fry, who for a while had an affair with Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, was a friend of Virginia’s. She wrote three books subtitled ‘A Biography‘ – her biography of Roger Fry is one of them, first published in 1940.

For more information on Roger Fry see Art UK.

Needless to say – I enjoyed this book and it has encouraged me to read more of Virginia Woolf’s books (I’ve already read Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Flush, all before I began my blog, and Death of a Moth and Other Essays – see also this post.)

Adding to the TBRs

As usual I am behind with writing about the books I’ve read, with four to do. I’m in the middle of writing about The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, but it is taking me longer than I’d hoped and I haven’t finished my post yet.

So, here’s a post about the four books I’ve added to my TBRs this week:

STSmall

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

I’ve added one paperback and three e-books:

  • The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley. A friend recommended this book to me and I was delighted to see that it is one of the Kindle Daily Deals this morning. It’s steam-punk, a genre completely new to me! It is described as:

Utterly beguiling, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street blends historical events with dazzling flights of fancy to plunge readers into a strange and magical past, where time, destiny, genius ? and a clockwork octopus ? collide.

I hope I’ll like it as much as my friend did!

  • John Le Carré: the Biography by Adam Sisman, because I want to know more about the author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Night Manager and his other espionage books. During the 1950s and the 1960s, he worked for the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, and began writing novels under a pen name. This is the definitive biography of a major writer, described by Ian McEwan as ‘perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain’.
  • Time Heals No Wounds: a Baltic Sea crime novel by Hendrick Falkenberg. This is one of the free books for Amazon Prime members in May. German author Hendrik Falkenberg studied sports management and works in sports broadcasting. The magical allure that the sea holds for him comes alive in his stories, which are set on the north German coast. His first book, Die Zeit heilt keine Wunden (Time Heals No Wounds), was a #1 Kindle bestseller in Germany and has been translated for the first time into English.
  • And lastly, HeavenAli held a draw to give away some of Virginia Woolf’s books and I’m delighted that I won Orlando in the giveaway.

Orlando tells the tale of an extraordinary individual who lives through centuries of English history, first as a man, then as a woman; of his/her encounters with queens, kings, novelists, playwrights, and poets, and of his/her struggle to find fame and immortality not through actions, but through the written word. At its heart are the life and works of Woolf’s friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West, and Knole, the historic home of the Sackvilles. But as well as being a love letter to Vita, Orlando mocks the conventions of biography and history, teases the pretensions of contemporary men of letters, and wryly examines sexual double standards.

I’m looking forward to reading these books in the coming months!

Once Upon a Time X

I’m a bit late in joining in with Carl’s Once Upon a Time challenge this year! But as it doesn’t end until 21 June it’s not too late.

The Once Upon a Time X Challenge has a few rules:

  • Rule #1: Have fun.
  • Rule #2: HAVE FUN.
  • Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
  • Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.

While this event retains the word “challenge” from its earliest days, the entire goal is to read good books, watch engaging television shows and films, play immersive games and most importantly, visit old friends and make new ones. There are several ways to participate – see Carl’s sign-up post.

I’ll be doing:
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which involves the reading of one or more short stories that fit within at least one of these four genres:  Fairy Tale, Folklore, Fantasy and Mythology, including the seemingly countless sub-genres and blending of genres that fall within this spectrum.

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I’m planning to read/re-read some of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales from this old book, sadly now falling apart. It belonged to my mother when she was a child.  I read some, but by no means all, of these stories when I was little and I’m looking forward to re-living the experience.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: The Silver Pigs

Every Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

This week I’m featuring The Silver Pigs by Lindsay Davis, a book that I started reading last night. Whilst this is a new-to-me series, The Silver Pigs was first published in 1989 and there are now 20 books in the series. Lindsey Davis also writes the Favia Alba Mystery series. She has won many literary awards, and was honorary president of the Classical Association from 1997 to 1998.

It begins:

When the girl came rushing up the steps, I decided she was wearing far too many clothes.

It was late summer. Rome frizzled like a pancake on a griddleplate. People unlaced their shoes but had to keep them on; not even an elephant could cross the street unshod. People flopped on stools in shadowed doorways, bare knees apart, naked to the waist – and in the backstreets of Aventine Sector where I lived, that was just the women.

This is historical crime fiction, the first of the Marcus Didius Falco novels. Set in Rome in 70AD, Vespasian is the new Roman emperor and Falco is a private informer, or private eye. In this first book he and his partner Helena Justina rescue a young girl in trouble. He is then catapulted into a dangerous game involving stolen imperial ingots, a dark political plot and, most hazardous of all, a senator’s daughter connected to the traitors Falco has sworn to expose.

My copy has an introduction by Lindsey Davis in which she tells of how she began to write historical fiction, setting a typical private eye figure in Rome two thousand years ago. It has maps and a Dramatis Personae.

And I do like the cover.

 

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot

I was pleased when the Classics Club Spin number came up as 8, because for me that was The Mill on the Floss, a book I’ve had for years, so it was time I read it. I think one of the reasons I hadn’t read it is the size of the font – it’s small. But then I realised that there is a free e-book, so I read it on my Kindle as I could increase the font size.

Description (from my paperback copy of the Penguin Popular Classics 1994 edition, shown above):

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

My thoughts:

The Mill on the Floss was first published in 1860. The story begins in the late 1820s, when Maggie, who is ‘big for her age, gone nine‘ and her brother, Tom aged about twelve are living at Dorlcote Mill on the banks of the river Floss near the town of St Oggs. Their father is anxious that Tom should have a good education so that he can go into business – he does not want him to be a miller. But it is Maggie who is the keen reader, enjoying books like The History of the Devil by Daniel Defoe, Aesop’s Fables and the Pilgrim’s Progress.

I enjoyed parts of the book more than other parts. The first part of this book, covering Maggie and Tom’s childhood for example is fascinating and a study of early 19th century rural life and education. Tom goes away from home to study under a tutor, Mr Stelling and meets Philip Wakem, whose father is a lawyer, Mr Tulliver’s opponent in a lawsuit. Maggie and Tom’s relationship is difficult, although she professes she ‘loves him better than anyone else in the world’, even when he rebukes her. Meanwhile Maggie becomes more friendly with Philip than Tom and her family like.

There are some lovely scenes, for example Maggie’s escapade when she leaves home to live with the gypsies. And I liked all the scenes with Mrs Tulliver’s sisters, who look down on her for marrying a miller and criticise Maggie’s appearance and behaviour, for Maggie is full of high spirits and energy. The sisters also provide comic relief, at times being miserly and self-centred, with a strong sense of their own importance. But things go from bad to worse for the Tullivers, when Mr Tulliver loses the lawsuit and eventually loses the mill.

In other places, between scenes there are long, rambling passages, that I found too wordy and philosophical and I waited impatiently to get back to the story. But overall I liked the book, more than I liked Adam Bede, but not as much as I remember liking Middlemarch, which I read long before I began this blog.

The Mill on the Floss is an epic novel encompassing various themes such as love, marriage, family loyalty, the social conventions of the times, and the struggle to survive. Feminism, education, and the role of women in society are to the fore, as Maggie is torn between two men who love her and is judged harshly for her behaviour.

It is a character driven plot; the river Floss plays a major part in the story, running through a wide plain, hurrying on to the sea, laden with ships. It’s a noisy place with Dorlcote Mill is on its banks near a stone bridge and the rush of the water is deafening, along with the ‘thunder of the huge covered wagon coming home with sacks of grain‘.

And it is the Floss that provides the huge climax which took me by surprise. It’s a dramatic ending and yet I found it rather unsatisfactory, not sure that I could believe what I had read, and shocked by such a sad ending. Looking back after I finished the book I realised that it had been foreshadowed almost from the start and I had missed it.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR 2016 and The Classics Club.

Books Read in April 2016

I can hardly believe it’s the first day of May – we’ve had such mixed weather recently, including snow. On Thursday evening our road looked very Christmassy but by the morning the snow had nearly all gone.

I read a mixed selection of books in April, eight books in total, five of them books from my TBR shelves including one non-fiction book.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (TBR) – a book I’ve owned for nearly eight years! It’s a novel inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah, but most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary.  I loved it.

The Price of Love by Peter Robinson – a collection of short stories, including an original DCI Banks novella that I read on my Kindle. Very enjoyable.

Blurb: When DCI Alan Banks arrived in Eastvale his life was every bit as much of a mess as it is now.But he is holding an envelope that could change everything he understood about the events that sent him north twenty years ago. Walking again the narrow alleys and backstreets of his mind, he remembers the seedy Soho nights of his last case – dubious businessmen in dodgy clubs, young girls on the game. And a killer on the loose.

In addition to the brand-new novella that fills in the gaps in Banks’s life before Yorkshire, Peter Robinson gives us ten more brilliant and eclectic stories that have never before been published in the UK. The Eastvale Ladies’ Poker Circle finds that murder may be just another game of risk. Is a suitcase of cash worth a man’s head on a plate? And tragedy leads a young boy to learn the price of love . . .

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver – the story of Taylor Greer and what happens when she leaves her home in Kentucky and becomes the guardian of an abandoned baby girl she calls Turtle.

Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill (TBR) –  a Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction novel, the 11th in the series. I liked all the complications of plot and sub-plots in this book and the interplay of the characters. It’s full of interesting characters and humour, but it is the plot that takes precedence. It is so tricky, with numerous red herrings and plot twists.

Before the Fact by Francis Iles (TBR) –  a cleverly written, Golden Age crime fiction novel that is a psychological character study of its two main characters, Lina and Johnnie Aysgarth. It was nearly eight years before Lina realized that she was married to a murderer.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (TBR) –  George Eliot’s most autobiographical novel, first published in 1860. It’s a book I have been meaning to read for years, so I was pleased when the Classic’s Club Spin gave me the nudge to read it! My review is to follow.

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home (RB) – a book I thoroughly enjoyed, it grabbed my attention right from the start. It’s a complicated story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade. It’s set mainly in Scotland with a strong sense of place throughout.

L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde (NF, TBR) – Lowry is one of my favourite artists, well known for his urban paintings of industrial towns but his work covers a wide range of themes and subjects, from landscapes and seascapes to portraits. My review is to follow.

And my favourite? With such a variety of genres it’s impossible to single out one book, but three books stand out:

People of the Book by Geraldine James, because I was so engrossed in the book I didn’t want to put it down.

And The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home, because it’s crime fiction with a difference and I loved all the different strands.

And finally, L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde, because I learnt so much about the man and his paintings.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

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

My thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home

Lovereading.co.uk  sent me a copy of  The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home for review in advance of the publication of the third title in the series The Malice of Waves on 19 May and I’m glad to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

It’s one of those books that grabbed my attention right from the start when two young teenage girls from India are sold into the sex trafficking trade, completely unaware of the dangers and terror that awaits them. Then, Edinburgh-based oceanographer, Cal McGill is caught on camera planting a rare wild flower in the garden of the Scottish Environment Minister in a campaign to make politicians aware of the dangers of climate change. Detective Inspector Ryan wants to charge him with vandalism but the minister’s wife wants to keep the plant!

From then on the story gets complicated. It’s more of an investigative story than crime fiction, with several strands to the story, but it’s so well told that I had no difficulty in following all of them: a story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade. It’s set mainly in Scotland with a strong sense of place throughout.

The main characters are all fully rounded and complex – Cal McGill works for environmental organisations tracking oil spills using wind speeds and data on ocean currents; DI David Ryan and DC Helen Jamieson are investigating the appearance of severed feet in trainers that had been washed on shore on islands miles apart – tests had revealed that they belonged to the same body; and Basanti, one of the Indian girls, whose resourcefulness saved her life. I especially liked Helen Jamieson, the overweight policewoman, whose boss, Ryan mistakenly thinks is stupid, and the way she deals with him.

The strand that interested me most concerns Cal’s grandfather, from the (fictional) island of Eilean Iasgaich. He had died during the Second World War, washed overboard during a storm, whilst their trawler was patrolling the sea around Norway, one of seven men who had died – and yet his name had not been included in the island’s war memorial. Cal eventually discovers the truth about what actually happened and how his grandfather met his death.

It’s a gripping and emotional story. I loved it.

The Sea Detective is Mark Douglas-Home’s first book. Before writing books he was the editor of Scotland’s leading daily newspaper, The Herald, and The Sunday Times Scotland. He is the nephew of the late Sir Alec Douglas-Home who was Prime Minister of the UK from October 1963 to October 1964. He lives in Edinburgh.

I’m looking forward to reading his second book, The Woman who Walked into the Sea as well as his third, The Malice of Waves.

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016 – by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

My Week in Books: 27 April 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: I’m still reading L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde. Lowry is one of my favourite artists, well known for his urban paintings of industrial towns but his work covers a wide range of themes and subjects, from landscapes and seascapes to portraits.

I’m also reading The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf, her first novel.

Blurb: Rachel Vinrace is on board her father’s ship, the Euphrosyne, on a voyage to South America. Despite being accompanied by her father and her aunt and uncle, Helen and Ridley Ambrose, the passage leads to Rachel’s awakening, both as a woman and as an individual. As the ship is wracked by storms, she finds herself romantically entangled with Richard Dalloway, an encounter that leaves her troubled and confused. Upon arrival in Santa Marina, Rachel strikes off alone to contemplate her identity, and finds herself with the aspiring novelist Terence Hewet. As the emerging romance between the two is complicated by their disagreements about gender and art, another storm, and tragedy, appear on the horizon.

Then: I’ve recently finished The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Home, a crime fiction novel with a difference and a book I thoroughly enjoyed. This is the first in an unusual crime series.

Blurb: Cal McGill is an Edinburgh-based oceanographer, environmentalist and one-of-a-kind investigator. Using his knowledge of the waves – ocean currents, prevailing winds, shipping records – McGill can track where objects have come from, or where they’ve gone. It’s a unique skill that can help solve all sorts of mysteries. Such as when two severed feet wash up miles apart on two different islands off the coast of Scotland. Most strangely, forensic tests reveal that the feet belong to the same body.

As Cal McGill investigates, he unravels a web of corruption, exploitation and violence, which threatens many lives across the globe – very soon including his own…

My review is to follow.

Next: this is always a step into the unknown and at the moment I’m wondering whether to read one of my TBR books, such as Poirot Investigates a collection of short stories by Agatha Christie, first published in 1924.

Blurb: First there was the mystery of the film star and the diamond… then came the ‘suicide’ that was murder… the mystery of the absurdly cheap flat… a suspicious death in a locked gun-room… a million dollar bond robbery… the curse of a Pharaoh’s tomb… a jewel robbery by the sea… the abduction of a Prime Minister… the disappearance of a banker… a phone call from a dying man… and, finally, the mystery of the missing will.

What links these fascinating cases? Only the brilliant deductive powers of Hercule Poirot!

It’s probably about time I read some more of Agatha Christie’s short stories!

First Chapter, First Paragraph

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

One of the books I’ll be reading soon is Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill OBE. From what I’ve read so far it promises to be very interesting. Born in 1917 Diana Athill helped Andre Deutsch establish his publishing company and worked as a literary editor for many years. She is also a novelist and has published several memoirs.

Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter begins:

‘Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits’: I have forgotten who it is who is supposed to have said that, but it is a good description of a state quite often observed in a retirement home, and considered pitiable. Disconcertingly, I recently realized that I myself (not very often, just now and then) might say those very words if somebody asked me what I was doing. It is not a welcome thought, but less dreadful than it might be because I now know from experience that the state is not necessarily pitiable at all. It is even pleasant – or it can be. That probably depends on the nature of the person sitting. To me it has been, because the thinking turns out to be about events in the past which were enjoyable, and when the mind relaxes itself it is those same events which float in and out of it.

Blurb:

What matters in the end? In the final years of life, which memories stand out? Writing from her retirement home in Highgate, London, as she approaches her 100th year, Diana Athill reflects on what it is like to be in her nineties, and on the moments in her life which have risen to the surface and sustain her in her later years.

She recalls in sparkling detail the exact layout of the garden of her childhood, a vast and beautiful park attached to a large house, and writes with humour, clarity and honesty about her experiences of the First and Second World Wars, and her trips to Europe as a young woman. In the remarkable title chapter, Athill describes her pregnancy at the age of forty-three, losing the baby and almost losing her life, and her gratitude on discovering that she had survived.

With vivid memories of the past mingled with candid, wise and often very funny reflections on the experience of being very old, Alive, Alive Oh! reminds us of the joy and richness to be found at every stage of life.

Teaser Tuesday newTeaser Tuesday is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Books and a Beat. ! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page

My teaser is from page 29:

It annoys me when someone describes this country in the late 1940s and 1950s as being dreary, an opinion usually based on the continuation of rationing for some years after the war’s end. People who see it like that can’t have lived through the war. Those of us still alive who did so see it differently.

It’s a short book – just 168 pages – but she seems to have packed so much into it.

My Reginald Hill Reading Project

Inspired by reading Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence recently I decided I want to read more of his books and I’ve made a page to record my progress. When I visited two secondhand bookshops this last week I stocked up on as many of his books that were on the shelves that I haven’t read:

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They are all Dalziel and Pascoe novels, apart from The Collaborators, which is a standalone novel set in 1945 in Paris. From the top down they are (synopses from Amazon, essentially the blurbs on the back covers) :

  • Dialogues of the Dead: A man drowns. Another dies in a motorbike crash. Two accidents … yet in a pair of so-called Dialogues sent to the Mid-Yorkshire Gazette as entries in a short story competition, someone seems to be taking responsibility for the deaths.In Mid-Yorkshire CID these claims are greeted with disbelief. But when the story is leaked to television and a third indisputable murder takes place, Dalziel and Pascoe find themselves playing a game no one knows the rules of against an opponent known only as the Wordman.
  • The Collaborators:Paris, 1945. In the aftermath of the French liberation, Janine Simonian stands accused of passing secret information to the Nazis.She is dragged from her cell before jeering crowds, to face a jury of former Resistance members who are out for her blood. Standing bravely in court, Janine pleads guilty to all charges.Why did Janine betray, not just her country, but her own husband? Why did so many French men and women collaborate with the Nazis, while others gave their lives in resistance?What follows is a story of conscience and sacrifice that portrays the impossible choice between personal and national loyalty during the Nazi occupation.
  • Child’s Play:When Geraldine Lomas dies, her huge fortune is left to an animal rights organization, a fascist front and a services benevolent fund. But at her funeral a middle-aged man steps forward, claiming to be her long-lost son and rightful heir.He is later found shot dead in the police car park, leaving behind a multitude of suspects. And Superintendent Dalziel and Peter Pascoe find themselves plunged into an investigation that makes most of their previous cases look like child’s play…
  • On Beulah Height:Fifteen years ago they moved everyone out of Dendale. They needed a new reservoir and an old community seemed a cheap price to pay. But four inhabitants of the valley could not be moved, for nobody knew where they were: three little girls who had gone missing, and the prime suspect in their disappearance, Benny Lightfoot.This was Andy Dalziel’s worst case and now he looks set to relive it. Another child goes missing in the next valley, and old fears arise as someone sprays the deadly message on Danby bridge: BENNY’S BACK!
  • Midnight Fugue:Gina Wolfe is searching for her missing husband, believed dead, and hopes Superintendent Andy Dalziel can help. What neither realize is that there are others on the same trail. A tabloid hack with some awkward enquiries about an ambitious MP’s father. The politician’s secretary who shares his suspicions. The ruthless entrepreneur in question – and the two henchmen out to make sure the past stays in the past.Four stories, two mismatched detectives trying to figure it all out, and 24 hours in which to do it: Dalziel and Pascoe are about to learn the hard way exactly how much difference a day makes…

Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill

I found a lot to enjoy in Bones and Silence, Reginald Hill’s 11th book in his Dalziel and Pascoe series, first published in 1990.

Blurb (from the back cover):

When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure who the culprit is. After all, he’s got to believe in what he sees with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe thinks so.

Dalziel senses the doubters around him, which only strengthens his resolve. To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer threatening suicide. Worse still, Pascoe seems intent on reminding him of the fact.

Meanwhile the effervescent Eileen Chung is directing the Mystery Plays. And who does she have in mind for God? Dalziel of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty in acting the part …

My thoughts:

I liked all the complications of plot and sub-plots in this book and the interplay of the characters. It’s full of interesting characters and humour, but it is the plot that takes precedence. It is so tricky, with numerous red herrings and plot twists. Dalziel is positive that he saw Philip Swain shoot his wife; shooting her at close range, destroying much of her face and removing the top of her head. But Swain insists it was an accident – he was trying to stop her from killing herself and the gun went off. The only other witness, Greg Waterson, backs up Swain’s story – and then disappears.

My image of Dalziel comes from Warren Clark’s portrayal of him in the TV series because I watched the programmes before I read any of Hill’s books. To me Warren Clarke is Dalziel, just as David Suchet is Poirot. Dalziel is a larger than life character, speaks his mind and is never politically correct. He is is positive in his belief in Swain’s guilt even when everyone else thinks his wife’s death was an accident:

Andrew Dalziel, despite what his friends said, was no paranoiac. He did not believe himself to be infallibly perfect or unjustly persecuted. His great strength was that he walked away from his mistakes like a horse from its droppings, and as he himself once remarked, if you leave crap on people’s carpets, you’ve got to expect a bit of persecution.

But when he believed himself right, he did not readily accept evidence that he might be wrong, not while there was any stone left unturned. (page 242)

But it doesn’t help that Swain has been cast in the role of the devil opposite Dalziel’s God in the mystery play and the two are constantly sparring. The whole sub-plot of the mystery play is brilliant. Each Part of the book is headed by a quotation from the York Cycle of Mystery Plays, each one relevant to the events that follow. And the vision of Dalziel as God is so funny, especially when the fat man has to climb a narrow ladder up the back of a triple decker stage mounted on a flat car. Dalziel has to sit on a tiny platform over the upper deck, perched above polystyrene clouds.

Pascoe has recently returned to work after a period of sick leave, following an accident and, impatient to find evidence against Swain, Dalziel delegates the anonymous letters to Pascoe to discover who has been sending them. This sub-plot about the identity of the letter writer is the only part of the book that I’m not sure about. I had several thoughts about who it could be, but I was wrong and in the end when the author was revealed I wasn’t completely convinced that that character could have known all the information given in the letters. Still, it makes a dramatic conclusion to the book and came as a complete surprise to me.

Although Bones and Silence is a long book (524 pages) I read it quite quickly, completely absorbed in its mysteries and impressed both with the ingenuity of the plot and the quality of the writing. I really mustn’t leave it very long before I read some more of Reginald Hill’s books.

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (25 Jun. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0007313128
  • ISBN-13: 978-0007313129
  • Source: I bought the book

Reginald Charles Hill FRSL (3 April 1936 – 12 January 2012) was an English crime writer, and the winner in 1995 of the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016 – a book I’ve owned for four years.

Before the Fact by Francis Iles

On the face of it Before the Fact is a straight forward story. It tells the tale of wealthy, intelligent but plain Lina McLaidlaw whose family are against her marriage to the handsome, charming and fascinating Johnnie Aysgarth; Lina’s father tells her Johnnie is a ‘rotter’. But right from the opening paragraph it’s obvious that Lina’s father is right. In fact Johnnie is much worse than her father realised:

Some women give birth to murderers, some go to bed with them, and some marry them. Lina Aysgarth had lived with her husband for nearly eight years before she realized that she was married to a murderer.

First published in 1932 by Francis Iles (* see below*), Before the Fact is a Golden Age crime fiction novel that is a psychological character study of its two main characters, Lina and Johnnie. It’s cleverly written. Lina slowly realises Johnnie’s true nature – that of a compulsive liar and gambler, a manipulative scoundrel who thinks nothing of being unfaithful, even of arranging a murder, or two.  But still she stays with him, trying to control and change him, believing his lies until she has to accept him for what he is, with disastrous consequences.

As Lina’s eyes are slowly opened I became exasperated at her naiveté, her acceptance of what she she has discovered about Johnnie. She comes across as a fool besotted by him and desperate for his love and attention, and even though her suspicions are aroused she still deliberately ignored all the warning signs, descending from panic, terror, horror and despair into passivity. She is maddening, a born victim and I began to wonder how it could possibly end. It was even more chilling than I had imagined.

*About the Author (copied from the publishers):

Frances Iles was a pseudonym of Anthony Berkeley Cox, who was born in 1893 in Watford. After serving in the army during the First World War, Berkeley worked as a journalist for many years before his first foray into the crime genre with The Layton Court Mystery (1925).

His two primary non-de-plumes were Francis Iles and Anthony Berkeley. As the former, he was a master of the psychological suspense genre, always with a wry humorous tenor to his writing; as the latter he acted as a trailblazer in the classic ‘Golden Age’ of crime and detective novels.

An intensely private man who always shunned publicity, Berkeley died in 1971.

As I read I marked a few passages that although not directly connected with the story I found interesting:

About artistic criticism – in particular female criticism:

If one did not happen to like a certain book, picture, or piece of music, one took it for granted that the book, picture, or piece of music was just bad; and the people who thought it was good, were, quite simply and plainly, mistaken. It never occurred to any female critic that a book might possibly be above her own level of intelligence (the men of course read only detective stories). (page 42)

on artists:

‘Aren’t artists intelligent?’ Lina asked innocently.

‘Of course they’re not. Most of them haven’t got the brains of a mouse. They just have this odd knack of being able to put things on canvas, and that’s all. They are the dullest of all the creators. Musicians are the nicest: you never hear a musician talk about himself at all. Then the really good authors. They don’t thrust their work down one’s throat; they’ve no need to. Then the second-rate authors, who do, and have. And then the painters, a long way bottom.’ (page 125)

I wonder who he was referring to?

And on murder:

When you incite a person to do something which both of you know will probably kill him – is that legally murder or not? (page 177)

Lina discusses this point with Isobel Sedbusk (based on Dorothy L Sayers), a writer of detective stories, thinking that it wasn’t ‘real murder, like giving the man poison, or shooting him, or anything like that.’ Isobel replies:

‘No, I’m inclined to doubt whether it would be murder, from the legal point of view. The legal definition of murder is ‘to kill with malice aforethought’. Still, you’ve got the malice aforethought all right. And if he knowingly incited the man to commit an act which would result in his death …’

Malice Aforethought – another novel by Francis Iles (published in 1931) begins with revealing the identity of the murderer. I shall have to read that one soon.

Reading Challenges:

Classics Club Check-In April 2016

Classics Club check inIt’s time for a Classics Club Check-In. Three years ago (next week) I joined The Classics Club, signing up to read and write about at least 50 classic books in at most five years. This is the first time I’ve taken part in a Check-In, although I have joined in with the Classics Club Spins, which I enjoy.

The list is not a fixed list and I have changed it since I started in 2013.This is my current list. I’ve listed the books in a-z author order. I’ve read 18 books, shown in bold, so I’m behind if I’m going to meet my target in the next two years. Currently I’m reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (my current Spin book).

It’s hard to pick a favourite. These books stand out in my mind – Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

  1. Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon by Jane Austen – finished 24 August 2015
  2. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – finished 29 June 2014
  3. The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett
  4. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (a re-read) – read in November 2014
  6. The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchanfinished 21 February 2014
  7. My Antonia by Willa Cather – finished 26 September 2013
  8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
  9. The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins – finished 30 September 2015
  10. No Name by Wilkie Collins
  11. Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  12. Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
  13. Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – finished 29 June 2013
  14. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  15. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  16. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  17. The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – finished 10 October 2015
  18. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  19. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  20. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  21. Adam Bede by George Eliot – finished 18 September 2015
  22. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  23. Romola by George Eliot
  24. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  25. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  26. The Forsyte Saga (1-3) by John Galsworthy
  27. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  28. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  29. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  30. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  31. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  32. Washington Square by Henry James – finished 17 December 2013
  33. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  34. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – finished 16 July 2013
  35. The Call of the Wild by Jack London – finished 10 December 2014
  36. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  37. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  38. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – finished 20 November 2013
  39. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck – finished 20 September 2015
  40. Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes by Robert Louis Stevenson
  41. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  42. Barchester Towers (Barsetshire Chronicles, #2) by Anthony Trollope – finished 22 February 2015
  43. Doctor Thorne (Barsetshire Chronicles, #3) by Anthony Trollope – finished 3 March 2016
  44. Framley Parsonage (Barsetshire Chronicles, #4) by Anthony Trollope
  45.  The Small House at Allington (Barsetshire Chronicles, #5) by Anthony Trollope
  46. The Last Chronicle of Barset (Barsetshire Chronicles, #6) by Anthony Trollope
  47. The Time Machine by H G Wells – finished 29 March 2014
  48. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  49. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – finished 22 February 2014
  50. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

My Week in Books: 13 April 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: Currently I’m reading three books, because I like to vary my reading. So, I have a classic, a crime fiction and a non-fiction book on the go:

Blurb:

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

  • Bones and Silence by Reginald Hill – a Dalziel and Pascoe crime fiction novel. It’s book 11 in the series, which I’m reading totally out of order (there are over 20 in the series) and it is really good.

Blurb:

When Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel witnesses a bizarre murder across the street from his own back garden, he is quite sure who the culprit is. After all, he’s got to believe what he sees with his own eyes. But what exactly does he see? And is he mistaken? Peter Pascoe thinks so.

Dalziel senses the doubters around him, which only strengthens his resolve. To make matters worse, he’s being pestered by an anonymous letter-writer, threatening suicide. Worse still, Pascoe seems intent on reminding him of the fact.

Meanwhile, the effervescent Eileen Chung is directing the Mystery Plays. And who does she have in mind for God? Daziel, of course. He shouldn’t have too much difficulty acting the part…

  • L S Lowry: A Life by Shelley Rohde. Lowry is one of my favourite artists, well known for his urban paintings of industrial towns but his work covers a wide range of themes and subjects, from landscapes and seascapes to portraits. This biography is based on collections of private papers held in The Lowry, Salford Quays.
  • Then: I’ve recently finished The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver, her first novel. I’ve read some of her other books –  loved The Poisonwood Bible which I’ve read a few times, and Homeland, a book of short stories, but wasn’t so taken with The Lacuna. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bean Trees – my review will follow shortly:

Blurb:

Plucky Taylor Greer grows up poor in rural Kentucky with two goals: to avoid pregnancy and to get away. She succeeds on both counts when she buys an old car and heads west. But midway across the country motherhood catches up with her when she becomes the guardian of an abandoned baby girl she calls Turtle. In Tuscon they encounter an extraordinary array of people, and with their help, Taylor builds herself and her sweet, stunned child a life.

Next: I really don’t know.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

Ninth Blog Birthday!

Nine todayI started blogging on 12 April 2007, after a hesitant start with one post in July 2006. Nine years! Each year, as the anniversary comes round, I think how amazing it is that I’m still writing my blog, but it still feels like yesterday that I began it.

Since then I’ve posted 2,235 posts – most of them are book reviews, which is no surprise to me as I began BooksPlease as a way of keeping track of what I’ve read. I also write about other things, such as art, pets, places I’ve visited, personal anecdotes or thoughts, cookery, walking, travels and holidays. But it still remains mostly a book blog.

I had no idea when I began just how big a community the book blogging world is, nor that I would make contact with so many people in so many parts of the world. I had never heard of ‘memes’, didn’t know about reading challenges, but over the years I’ve taken part in many, broadening my reading interests into many different genres, and I never thought that authors would want me to review their books, nor that I would enjoy it all so much.

It’s really the contact with people that makes book blogging so enjoyable – knowing that you’re part of a world-wide group of people who love books and reading. So, thank you to all of you who read and comment on my blog – I really do appreciate it!

Stacking the Shelves: 9 April 2016

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

I’ve borrowed three library books this week, books by authors whose books I’ve read in the past and enjoyed:

  • The Cleaner of Chartres by Salley Vickers – I borrowed this because I’ve some of Salley Vickers’ books and loved them, in particular Miss Garnet’s Angel and Mr Golightly’s Holiday and Where Three Roads Meet, so I’m hoping I’ll love this one too.

Blurb:

There is something special about the ancient cathedral of Chartres, with its mismatched spires, astonishing stained glass and strange labyrinth. And there is something special too about Agnès Morel, the mysterious woman who is to be found cleaning it each morning.

No one quite knows where she came from – not the diffident Abbé Paul, who discovered her one morning twenty years ago, sleeping in the north porch; nor lonely Professor Jones, whose chaotic existence she helps to organise; nor Philippe Nevers, whose neurotic sister and newborn child she cares for; nor even the irreverent young restorer, Alain Fleury, who works alongside her each day and whose attention she catches with her tawny eyes, her colourful clothes and elusive manner. And yet everyone she encounters would surely agree that she is subtly transforming their lives, even if they couldn’t quite say how.

But with a chance meeting in the cathedral one day, the spectre of Agnès’ past returns, provoking malicious rumours from the prejudiced Madame Beck and her gossipy companion Madame Picot. As the hearsay grows uglier, Agnès is forced to confront her history, and the mystery of her origins finally unfolds.

Blurb:

Reading Gaol’s most famous prisoner is pitted against a ruthless and fiendishly clever serial killer. ‘Intelligent, amusing and entertaining’ Alexander McCall Smith It is 1897, Dieppe. Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, novelist, raconteur and ex-convict, has fled the country after his release from Reading Gaol. Tonight he is sharing a drink and the story of his cruel imprisonment with a mysterious stranger. He has endured a harsh regime: the treadmill, solitary confinement, censored letters, no writing materials. Yet even in the midst of such deprivation, Oscar’s astonishing detective powers remain undiminished – and when first a brutal warder and then the prison chaplain are found murdered, who else should the governor turn to for help other than Reading Gaol’s most celebrated inmate?
In this, the latest novel in his acclaimed Oscar Wilde murder mystery series, Gyles Brandreth takes us deep into the dark heart of Wilde’s cruel incarceration.

Blurb:

Charlie Howard – struggling crime-writer by day, talented thief by night – has gone straight. But holing himself up in a crumbling palazzo in Venice in an attempt to concentrate on his next novel hasn’t got rid of the itch in his fingers. And to make matters worse, a striking Italian beauty has just broken into his apartment and made off with his most prized possession, leaving a puzzling calling card in its place.

It looks as though kicking the habit of a lifetime will be much more of a challenge than Charlie thought.

Sneaking out into Venice’s maze of murky canals, Charlie’s attempts to tame a cat burglar embroil him in a plot that is far bigger and more explosive than he could ever have imagined.

We should treasure our libraries.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

When I began reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks I wondered why I’d left it nearly eight years on my book shelves before I  got round to reading it. I loved it; it’s a real gem! It has joined the ranks of my favourite books and is definitely a book for keeping and (I hope) for re-reading.

How could I not love a book about books, in particular an ancient book, one that was thought to be lost or destroyed, a book that escaped burning by the Inquisition and the Nazis, a book that survived shelling during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, a book known as the priceless Sarajevo Haggadah – a medieval Jewish prayer book containing the illustrated traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Feast of Passover.

In Geraldine Brooks’ Afterword she explains that People of the Book is fiction, inspired by the true story of the Hebrew codex known as the Sarajevo Haggadah. Some of the facts are true to the haggadah’s known history but most of the plot and all of the characters are imaginary. She then goes on to define what is true and what is fictional, which I think is the best way of presenting historical fiction.

Australian Hanna Heath is a rare-book restorer and it’s not only the content of the haggadah that interests her, it is the hidden history of the book that captured her imagination and also mine. She finds tiny clues to its history as she restores the book – a fragment of an insect’s wing, wine stains, salt crystals and a tiny white hair – clues to unlock its mysteries. The story of the book is told in reverse chronological order beginning in 1996 and working back to 1480. Interwoven with each story is Hanna’s own story as she too discovers her roots. It’s a story too of love and war, of family relationships, of Anti-Semitism and of historical religious conflicts as the haggadah survived disaster after disaster. It’s also a novel about preserving the past, its culture and history for future generations. It has depth and breadth and is beautifully written. I was irresistibly engrossed in this book and full of wonder at its stories, reaching back in time from Sarajevo to Vienna, Venice, Tarragona to Seville in 1480 and also Hanna’s story from 1996 to 2002.

There are many descriptions of the haggadah throughout the book, all of which made me eager to know more about it. This is just one example from the chapter on wine stains set in Venice in 1609:

Aryeh released the catches, admiring the work of the silversmith. Each clasp, closed, was in the form of a pair of wings. As the delicate catch released – still smoothly after more than a century – the wings opened to reveal a rosette enfolded within. Aryeh saw at once that the book was a haggadah, but unlike any he had seen before. The gold leaf, the pigments … he stared at the illuminations, opening each page eagerly. He was delighted, yet a little disturbed, to see Jewish stories told in an art so like that of the Christians’ prayer books. (page 163)

And here, by way of contrast, is a description of Arnhem Land in the north east corner of Australia’s Northern Territory, where Hanna is working in the caves studying the Aboriginal rock art to document and preserve it before the uranium or bauxite companies blasted it into rubble:

I stepped out of the cave and blinked in the bright daylight. The sun was a big disc of brilliant madder, reddening the stripes of ore that ran through the sheer black-and-ocher rock face. Down below, the first shoots of new spear grass washed the plain in vivid green. Light silvered the sheets of water left behind by the previous night’s downpour. We’d moved into Gunumeleng – one of six seasons the Aborigines identified in a year that whites simply divided into Wet and Dry. Gunumeleng brought the first storms. In another month, the entire plain would be flooded. The so-called road, which was actually virtually a marginal dirt track, would be impassable. (pages 339-340)

I just had to know more about the Sarajevo Haggadah and found these illustrations (see Wikimedia Commons for more illustrations and these sites for more information –  WikipediaThe Times of Israel and About Haggadah:

Copies of Sarajevo Haggadah in parliament building – from Wikimedia Commons

The Sarejevo Haggadah, 15th century Spain – from Wikimedia Commons

Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Challenges 2106: Quarterly Update

Writing my last post on the Mount TBR Reading Challenge: Check Point made me think it would be a good time to see where I’m up to with the other reading challenges I’m doing. They are:

Mount TBR 2016Mount TBR 2016 – target: to read as many of my own books as I can. There are eight levels and I’m aiming first of all for Mt Ararat, which is 48 books. Progress – I’ve read 15 books, taking me on to the second level, Mont Blanc (24 books) so well on track to meet my target and hopefully go beyond it – maybe even to Mt Kilimanjaro (60 books).

Read Scotland 2016Read Scotland 2016 – target: to read and review Scottish books – any genre, any form – written by a Scottish author (by birth or immigration) or about or set in Scotland. There are 5 levels, the last being 21+ books.  I didn’t set myself a specific target and so far I’ve read 5 books, completing the first level.

Whats in a name16What’s in a Name? 2016 Challenge – target: to read books with titles that match six  different categories. Progress: two categories completed

  • A country
  • An item of clothing
  • An item of furniture
  • A profession: Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope
  • A month of the year: The Madness of July by James Naughtie
  • A title with the word ‘tree’ in it

Vintage coversVintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt – I’m taking part in both the Golden and the Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunts. The aim: to find as many objects on the Scavenger Hunt list as possible on the covers of the mystery books you read. The minimum number of items to complete the challenge is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era. The Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960 and the Silver Age any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive).

My Progress: Five books read from the Golden Age and one from the Silver Age.

agatha_christie_rcAgatha Christie Reading Challenge: an ongoing challenge – to read Agatha Christie’s books. I have read all 66 of her books, but still have three to review and many of her short stories to read. And there are also the books she wrote under the pen name, Mary Westmacott.

Virginia WoolfI haven’t even started on Heavenali’s Virginia Woolf read-a-long but I would like to read some of Virginia Woolf’s short stories/essays and The Voyage Out, her first novel.

Mount TBR Check Point#1

Mount TBR 2016It’s time for the first quarterly check-in post for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge and she has asked the following questions:

How many miles have you made it up your mountain (# of books read)? I’ve read 15 books, so have made it to the top of Pike’s Peak (12 books) and am part way up Mont Blanc. My target is Mt Ararat (48 books) but at this rate of reading maybe I could make it to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro (60 books) by the end of the year.

Post a picture of your favourite cover so far. Mine is the cover of A Month in the Country by J L Carr, the 2000 edition published by Penguin Books.

Who has been your favourite character so far? Miss Dunstable in Doctor Thorne, the wealthy heiress Frank’s relatives are insisting he must marry. She is down-to-earth, with a great sense of humour and intelligence. she knows that she is being courted for her money and having realised that Frank is in love with Mary Thorne, she encourages him to stay loyal to her.

Have any of the books surprised you? If so, in what way? The book that surprised me was Lustrum by Robert Harris, the second in his Cicero Trilogy, because it was even better than the first book. I think it’s historical fiction at its best.

Title Scrabble: Spell a word using the first letter of the first word in the titles of some/all of the books you have read so far. Feel free to consider “A”, “An”, or “The” as the first word if it helps you with your word hunt.

My word is Waists:

  • Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W J Burley
  • A Month in the Country by J L Carr
  • In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward
  • Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie
  • The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark
  • SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Stacking the Shelves: 2 April 2016

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

I bought three books this week.

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I loved watching The Night Manager, adapted from John le Carré’s novel, so when I went to Main Street Trading on Tuesday I hoped they would have a copy. They didn’t – but they did have Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a book I’ve wanted to read ever since I watched the BBC adaptation many years ago (Alec Guinness was George Smiley).

Blurb:

George Smiley, who is a troubled man of infinite compassion, is also a single-mindedly ruthless adversary as a spy.

The scene which he enters is a Cold War landscape of moles and lamplighters, scalp-hunters and pavement artists, where men are turned, burned or bought for stock. Smiley’s mission is to catch a Moscow Centre mole burrowed thirty years deep into the Circus itself.

Yesterday I went shopping and passing Berrydin in Books I had to go in and, of course, I had to buy a book – well two actually. First another book that I was prompted to read by a TV adaptation in 2012 – Birdsong by Sebastian Foulks.

Blurb:

A novel of overwhelming emotional power, Birdsong is a story of love, death, sex and survival. Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, arrives in Amiens in northern France in 1910 to stay with the Azaire family, and falls in love with unhappily married Isabelle. But, with the world on the brink of war, the relationship falters, and Stephen volunteers to fight on the Western Front. His love for Isabelle forever engraved on his heart, he experiences the unprecedented horrors of that conflict – from which neither he nor any reader of this book can emerge unchanged.

And also Citadel by Kate Mosse, because I like time-slip books. The main story is set in 1942-44 in Nazi-occupied  Carcassonne in France and moves back in time to 342, with a monk, Arinus trying to find a hiding place for a forbidden Codex.

Blurb:

1942, Nazi-occupied France. Sandrine, a spirited and courageous nineteen-year-old, finds herself drawn into a Resistance group in Carcassonne – codenamed ‘Citadel’ – made up of ordinary women who are prepared to risk everything for what is right.

And when she meets Raoul, they discover a shared passion for the cause, for their homeland, and for each other.

But in a world where the enemy now lies in every shadow – where neighbour informs on neighbour; where friends disappear without warning and often without trace – love can demand the highest price of all…

As soon as I read some of my TBR books (6 in March) it seems I just have to find more – at least it’s only three this time.

Books Read in March 2016

I finished reading seven books in March, six of them from my TBR shelves, and all except one are fiction. I enjoyed all of them. I’ve included extracts from my posts on the books:

  1. Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope (TBR) – a book about mid nineteenth-century prosperous country life and the traditional attitudes towards the accepted codes of conduct, of the importance of birth, of wealth and above all about money, class and power. I enjoyed this much more than the recent TV adaptation.
  2. Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey (TBR) – not a conventional crime fiction novel. It’s a psychological study focussing on the characters, their motivation and analysis of facial characteristics. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, such a delight to read, a book that is beautifully written.
  3. The Madness of July by James Naughtie – a political thriller set in London in the mid 1970s one sweltering July. It’s the Cold War period, a world of espionage, of deception, manipulation and diplomacy. I loved it. Naughtie uses beautiful imagery and the characters are vividly drawn.
  4. The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark (TBR) – a story centred on the lives of two women – Elizabeth Pringle and Martha Morrison. I was captivated by this story about family, relationships, especially mother/daughter/sister relationships, about happiness, love and heartbreak, old age, memories and the contrast between life in the early part of the twentieth century and the present.
  5. The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey (TBR) – the 9th in the Peter Diamond crime fiction series. Diamond is not a brilliant detective. He is rather old-school, not above a bit of threatening behaviour (and more) to suspects, not bothered about upsetting his boss, nor is he comfortable with technology. But he is determined and thorough.
  6. SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (NF, TBR) It has taken me nearly two months to read this comprehensive – and long – book. It is full of facts and written in a readable (ie not textbook) style. My review will follow.
  7. Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W J Burley (TBR) – the 15th theWycliffe series set in a Cornish village. It really is a tangled web that Wycliffe is faced with when schoolgirl Hilda Clemo disappears.

With so many enjoyable books to choose from, the one that stands out the most is Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey,

followed closely by The Madness of July by James Naughtie.

Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W J Burley

This is the 15th book in W J Burley’s Wycliffe series. First published in 1988, it is set in a Cornish village, which Burley identifies as Mevagissy, although with several ‘inaccuracies’ as he did ‘not want to imply that the people, the events, or the detailed locations described, have any reality outside the pages of this book. … In particular, and fortunately, the Rules and the Clemos, whose troubles are recounted, are families existing only in my imagination.’

Wycliffe is brought in to investigate the disappearance of a schoolgirl, Hilda Clemo, when it appears that she had been raped or murdered – or both. She had just told her sister and then her boyfriend that she was pregnant and had not been seen since 5pm on that afternoon. The investigation centres on her boyfriend, Ralph Martin and her family – the Clemos and their relations, the Rules.

Hilda had planned exactly what she was going to do:

… she would first break the news to Alice [her sister]: ‘I’m pregnant.’ Alice would tell Esther, Esther would have the job of breaking it to her father. She, herself, would tell Ralph Martin; there would be another session with her brother-in-law, Bertie; another with …

… she had decided that she could predict their reactions, almost the very words they would use. (pages 10 & 11)

It turns out to be a complicated case, especially when Wycliffe finds a body – but not Hilda’s and wonders if this death is connected to Hilda’s disappearance. It really is a tangled web that Wycliffe is faced with – family relationships, lies, resentments and manipulation that go badly wrong. Wycliffe works on getting to know the victim first, which he believes will lead him to discovering what has prompted the killer to strike. His problem is that Hilda is not an easy person to know. As he digs deeper he finds she has contact with a wider circle of people than her family realises.

I’ve read a few of the Wycliffe books and I think this is one of the best. Although it is so complicated it is an easy book to read, well paced and well plotted, with several sub-plots that link up the present and the present to help Wycliffe untangle the web.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve had for nearly two years; and the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Silver Age (books published between 1960 and 1989 (inclusive) in the Body of Water category.

My Week in Books: 30 March 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now:  I’ve decided to concentrate on books from my to-be-read shelves and picked People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, a book I’ve owned for nearly eight years. I can’t think why I haven’t read it before as so far I’m loving it.

Blurb:

People of the Book takes place in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, as a young book conservator arrives in Sarajevo to restore a lost treasure.

When Hannah Heath gets a call in the middle of the night in her Sydney home about a precious medieval manuscript which has been recovered from the smouldering ruins of wartorn Sarajevo, she knows she is on the brink of the experience of a lifetime. A renowned book conservator, she must now make her way to Bosnia to start work on restoring The Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book – to discover its secrets and piece together the story of its miraculous survival. But the trip will also set in motion a series of events that threaten to rock Hannah’s orderly life, including her encounter with Ozren Karamen, the young librarian who risked his life to save the book.

Then: I’ve recently finished Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W J Burley, another book from my to-be-read shelves.

Blurb:

A beautiful schoolgirl goes missing from a Cornish village on the day she has told her boyfriend and sister she is pregnant. The possibility that she has been raped or murdered – or both – grows with every passing hour, and Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is brought in on the case.

The investigation reveals a complex network of family relationships and rivalries centred on the girl; and then Wycliffe finds a body – but not the one he expects. Have there been two murders? And if so, are they connected?

Wycliffe digs deeper, and soon realises that just beneath the normal, day-to-day surface of the community lies a web of hatred and resentment – a web he will have to untangle if he is to find the key to the mystery . . .

My post will follow soon.

Next: I’m reluctant to say what I’ll be reading next because I usually change my mind when the time comes. But, I shall be reading The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot for the Classics Club Spin some time in April – yet another book I’ve owned for years.

Blurb:

George Eliot drew on her own anguished childhood when she depicted the stormy relationship between Maggie and Tom Tulliver. Maggie’s often tormented battle to do her duty and belong on the one hand, and to be  herself, wild and natural, on the other, propels her from one crisis to another. As the Tulliver fortunes decline and fall, the rift between Maggie and her family becomes almost irreconcilable. But Maggie’s biggest mistake of all is to fall in love with Stephen Guest who is engaged to another woman.

Both a sharp and observant picture of English rural life and a profoundly convincing analysis of a woman’s psychology, The Mill on the Floss is a novel that tackles the complexities of morality versus desire.

What about you? What are you reading this week?

The Secret Hangman by Peter Lovesey

The Secret Hangman is the first book I’ve read by Peter Lovesey and as it’s the 9th in his Peter Diamond series I was hoping it would read OK as a stand alone book – it does. Peter Diamond is a Detective Superintendent with the Bath police.

Blurb:

Peter Diamond, the Bath detective, is having woman trouble. His boss wants him to find a missing person, the daughter of one of her friends in the choir. He is not enthusiastic. Another woman, who calls herself his Secret Admirer, wants to set up a meeting in a local pub. He tries ignoring her. Then there is sexy Ingeborg Smith, the ex-journo detective constable, distracting the murder squad from their duties. No one ignores Ingeborg.

Murder becomes a possibility when a woman’s body is found hanging from a playground swing in Sydney Gardens and a suspicious second ligature mark is found around her neck. Diamond investigates the victim’s colourful past. More hangings are discovered and soon he is certain that a secret hangman is at work in the city . . .

My thoughts:

Diamond’s wife had died three years earlier – as I haven’t read the earlier books I suppose this is a spoiler, but it is important to know this from the start of this book, because he is now beginning to recover from his grief and becomes rather too involved with an attractive woman he met by chance in a carpark. The story of their relationship runs parallel to the investigations into the hangings and the series of ram raids his boss wants him to investigate.

At first there doesn’t appear that there is any connection between the victims and the motive for killing them only becomes clear quite late on in the book. The only similarities are that the victims are all couples – the wives are killed first, followed a few days later by their husbands, and all the bodies are found in public places as though the killer wanted their deaths to be discovered and publicised.

It takes a while before Diamond cottons on to the identity of the killer – and I was there some time before him, but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the book. Diamond is not a brilliant detective. He is rather old-school, not above a bit of threatening behaviour (and more) to suspects, not bothered about upsetting his boss, nor is he comfortable with technology. But he is determined and thorough – I liked him and want to read more from the series.

Peter Lovesey is a British writer of historical and contemporary crime novels and short stories. He has written many books, not just the Peter Diamond series, but also a series of books featuring Sergeant Cribb, a Victorian-era police detective based in London – the full list of his books is on his website – there are plenty to read!

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Reading challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve owned for 7 years, and one I should have read ages ago, but well worth the wait.

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir

I received a proof copy of Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen as a member of the reader review panel for Lovereading.co.uk. It’s the first book in a series of novels about Henry VIII’s Queens and is due to be published in May 2016.

This is fictional biography at its most straight forward, written in an uncomplicated style. Told from Katherine’s point of view it follows her life from the time she arrived in England at the age of sixteen to marry Prince Arthur, the elder of Henry VII’s two sons, to her death in 1536.

I knew the brief facts about Katherine, the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand of Spain, married first to Prince Arthur and then to his brother Henry after a papal dispensation allowing the marriage after Arthur’s death; her subsequent failure to produce a living male heir, suffering a series of miscarriages; the only baby to survive was a daughter, Mary; and her divorce in 1533 from Henry VIII, who was by then besotted with Anne Boleyn.

This novel fills in the facts in great detail including the question of whether her first marriage was consummated. Katherine maintained it wasn’t and based on research Weir takes her word as the truth. In her Author’s Note she refers to recent research by Giles Tremlett and Patrick Williams that shows ‘we can be fairly certain that Katherine’s marriage to Prince Arthur was not consummated and that he died of tuberculosis.’  She cites the basis of her account of Arthur’s illnesss on Dr. Alcaraz’s testimony, given on 1531 at Zaragoza. She portrays Katherine as a determined woman who never ceased loving Henry and above all who did everything she could to protect the legitimacy of her daughter.

Katherine is portrayed as a woman of her time – obedient to her parents and her husband, conscientious about doing her duty  and active in maintaining an alliance between England and Spain. But even so, she resisted Henry in his demands for an annulment of their marriage. She was heart-broken both at her failure to produce a living male heir and to keep Henry’s love – because they were in love at the beginning – and maintained that she was the true queen right up to her death. I tend to forget the length of their marriage, glibly remembering the mnemonic ‘Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived‘. Katherine and Henry were married for over 20 years. I did get tired of the account of their endless wrangling, going over and over the same arguments, never getting anywhere – but then I suppose that was how it was for them both.

Overall I enjoyed this book. It’s a long and comprehensive study, which has increased my knowledge and understanding of Katherine of Aragon and the early 1500s. It is obviously based on extensive research and written with great attention to historical accuracy, but in places this made it tedious and too drawn out.

  • Hardcover: 624 pages – also available as a Kindle edition
  • Publisher: Headline Review (5 May 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1472227476
  • ISBN-13: 978-1472227478
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 5.6 x 23.4 cm
  • Source: Review copy

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Friday is book excerpts day on two blogs:

Book Beginnings ButtonBook Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires.  Friday 56

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an ebook), find one or more sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

I’ve just started to read Wycliffe and the Tangled Web by W. J.  Burley. It begins:

The fair girl looked out of place in a doctor’s waiting room: she seemed to glow with health.

From page 56:

‘Alice has just come down from the village; she says the police are questioning Ralph Martin again; they’ve got him in their van on the quay.

After reading a few long books I fancied something shorter – this book has just 191 pages. It’s set in Cornwall where Chief Superintendent Wycliffe is investigating the case of a schoolgirl who went missing on the day that she told her boyfriend and sister she was pregnant. As he digs deeper Wycliffe finds a web of hatred and resentment – a web he will have to untangle.

It promises to be both easy reading and a satisfying mystery. I’ve read a few of Burley’s Wycliffe books and enjoyed them.

The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark

I quoted an extract from the opening paragraph of The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark in an earlier post, whilst I was in the middle of the book. I finished reading it a few days ago and have been wondering what to write about it ever since. It’s one of those books that has received a mixed reception with some reviewers thinking it’s a well written book whereas others think it isn’t. I enjoyed it very much.

It’s a story centred on the lives of two women – Elizabeth Pringle and Martha Morrison. Elizabeth has lived all her life on the Isle of Arran and knowing that she is dying and has no living relatives, leaves her house, Holmlea in Lamlash, to Anna Morrison, a woman she had seen years before, pushing her daughter’s pram down the road outside. Anna Morrison, had fallen in love with the house and written to Elizabeth asking her to get in touch if she ever thought of selling it. But Anna is now suffering from dementia and it is her daughter, Martha who goes to Arran to see the house on her mother’s behalf.

What follows is a dual narrative moving between Elizabeth’s account in her own words of her life up to the present day and Martha’s current situation, told in the third person, as she meets the people Elizabeth knew, in particular, Saul, a Buddhist, Niall, a young man who is passionate about gardening, and Catriona his sister who runs a hotel on the island. It’s a deceptive book in that it appears that not much happens and it is gentle and leisurely paced, but it is actually packed with events, some of them dramatic and devastating in their effect on the characters’ lives. And it has a vivid sense of place and of Arran’s history, which I loved.

I much preferred Elizabeth’s story beginning when she was just four and her father went off to fight in the First World War; her relationship with her mother; her life as a teacher and her love life. I found the ending of her life very moving. Martha’s story seems rather pat, everything falls into place a bit too easily – especially her relationship with her mother and sister and the instant friendships she makes on the island.

It’s a book about family, relationships, especially mother/daughter/sister relationships, about happiness, love and heartbreak, old age, memories and the contrast between life in the early part of the twentieth century and the present. It’s strong on description, which is important to me as I like to visualise the locations – and I had no difficulty at all with that in this book.

All in all, I was captivated by this story.

Kirsty Wark is a journalist, broadcaster and writer who hosts a variety of BBC programmes. Her home has always been Scotland and her family’s connection to Arran goes back over many years.

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Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge – a book I’ve had for two years, and Read Scotland 2016 – a book by a Scottish author and set in Scotland.

Weekend Cooking: Easy Baking

weekend cookingBeth Fish Reads’ Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book reviews (novel, nonfiction), cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs, restaurant reviews, travel information, or fun food facts.

Easy Baking is a Marks & Spencer book of recipes for Cakes, Slices & Bars, Cookies and Small Bakes, and Desserts.

I thought this little book looked too tempting to resist and one afternoon decided to make the Sticky Toffee Cake, one of my favourite cakes – and I had all the ingredients to hand. It really is an easy recipe. You need:P1010876

  • 75g sultanas
  • 150g stoned dates, chopped
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 25g butter
  • 200g soft dark brown sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 200g self-raising flour, sifted

Method:

Cover sultanas, dates and bicarb with boiling water and leave to soak. Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F and grease a 7 inch/18cm square cake tin. Mix butter and sugar together, beat in the eggs and fold in the flour, drain the soaked fruits, add to the bowl and mix. Spoon mixture into the cake tin and then bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean.

P1010872The recipe also includes a sticky toffee sauce, but I didn’t have the ingredients for that – it was still delicious, sweet and moist, without it. I’ll make it next time.

There are lots more recipes I’ll try making – including Jewel-topped Madeira Cake, which is topped with sliced glacé fruits glazed with honey, Chocolate Chip and Walnut Slices, Viennese Chocolate Fingers and Manhatton Cheesecake, which looks amazing with a digestive biscuit base and topped with a blueberry sauce.

My Friday Post: Book Beginnings & The Friday 56

Friday is book excerpts day on two blogs:

Book Beginnings ButtonBook Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires.  Friday 56

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an ebook), find one or more sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

I’m currently reading The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark. (See this post for the synopsis)

It begins with a letter dated 1 January 2006:

Holmlea, 20 Shore Road, Lamlash, Isle of Arran

Dear Mrs Morrison,

A long time ago, almost thirty-four years past, you wrote to me requesting that I contact you should I ever wish to leave my home. I knew then that I would never live anywhere else, and so there was no point in my replying to you. I have lived in this house since I was eight years old but I am what people these days describe as ‘ancient’ and somewhat frail, and although I have managed perfectly well on my own until now, I know I am not long for this world. I have told my doctor I will move to a small nursing home as I realise it will be less trouble for him, and I have finally locked up the house.

My family such as it was, is long dead. There is no one alive but me.

I am instructing my solicitor to write to you at the address on your letter. Holmlea is yours if you still wish it.

Page 54 (pages 55 and 56 are blank pages)

It was Mary who raced to Benkiln that fateful September of 1918 clutching a newspaper from France. I have read the cutting so often I know it by heart. ‘Arran gunner in brave attack on the Hun. Sergeant James Allan Pringle showed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an attack north of Bray-sur-Somme on 22 August. 

My thoughts

There were several things that caught my attention when I saw this book on display in the bookshop – first of all the cover, with its delicate colours, of a young woman entering a door, then the title with its hint of a past to be revealed, and thirdly the opening letter with its offer of a house on the Isle of Arran if Mrs Morrison still wished it. It’s a poignant letter, which saddened me a little with that sentence – There is no one alive but me. 

I’ve now read just over half of the book, which tells Elizabeth’s story along with that of Martha, Mrs Morrison’s daughter. I’ve never been to Arran, an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, but Kirsty Wark’s description is making me eager to see it for myself. The book has a quiet, gentle atmosphere, which is also very compelling reading, packed with the events of both Elizabeth’s and Martha’s lives.

The Madness of July by James Naughtie

When I began reading The Madness of July I was immediately drawn into the story. I used many markers as I read it because it has such a complicated plot. It’s a political thriller set in London in the mid 1970s one sweltering July as Will Flemyng the foreign office minister and former spy finds himself drawn back into the world of espionage, a world of deception, manipulation and diplomacy. It’s the Cold War period and Will discovers politics can be just as dangerous as espionage.

I really wasn’t sure what was going on at first, not sure what was relevant for me to remember and understand, not even sure who was who as the narrative switched between London, New York, Washington and the Highlands of Scotland. So there were times when I had to backtrack when I came across a character or an event, that turned out to be important to the story, which I hadn’t realised earlier on. The characters know what has gone before, know each other, know what they are talking about – but we don’t.

In a different book this would be a major drawback – in this book it is necessary. It’s as though we’re peering through the fog, until gradually the fog lifts and things become clearer. Or it’s like beginning a cryptic crossword where you have all the clues and no idea about the answers. Anyway, I loved it. If the content isn’t too clear at first the writing is, Naughtie uses beautiful imagery and the characters are vividly drawn, in particular the part set in Scotland at Altnabuie, the Flemyngs Highland estate:

At Altnabuie, they woke to a trembling dawn. Flemyng had raised his bedroom window before turning in, and when he opened his eyes, very early, he could smell the highlands. There was a edge to the warmth and the damp, and the tang of tree and field lured him on. He looked towards the loch and saw swirls of mist rising up in thin pillars, like the guilty secrets of hidden smokers, leaving a thin topping of white cotton on the water that crept over the surface and was beginning to disperse here and there with the coming of a soft breeze. It would be gone within the hour. The herons were on their favourite stone, prim and still like a pair of disapproving clerks. The crows cawed in the woods beyond, and behind him, on the eastern side of the house where the sun was already giving life to the place, he could hear the cockerel at work. Everything was crisp and clean, the stifling urban fog a world away. (page 173)

The events that July take place over just 6 days. An American, Joe Manson dies, apparently of an overdose and is found in a store cupboard (it was a large one full of boxes and all sorts of spare objects) in the House of Commons – except that as the House is technically a royal palace deaths are not allowed and bodies have to be discreetly removed and ‘expire’ elsewhere. And thus begins a political crisis – who was Manson, how did he die, what did he know, what had he said – and to whom? And there is a letter on House of Commons notepaper that Will found on the photocopier – an anonymous letter that is puzzling him, a letter from someone who is desperate and who feels he/she is being driven insane.

A secondary plot, but to my mind just as interesting, maybe even more so, concerns Will and his family. He has two brothers, an older on, Mungo who lives at Altnabuie, and a younger one, Abel, who goes by the name of Grauber, their mother’s maiden name, and lives in New York. Mungo has been researching their family history and has discovered a secret about their mother that he finds disconcerting, even frightening.

And the madness? At one point Flemyng, talking about politics says that the rules of the game mean that you have to behave irrationally. A point is reached where you invited destruction, he’d said, as if it were inevitable. ‘Maybe madness isn’t an aberration, but the natural end to our game.’ Everyone aspired to it in politics, even if they didn’t recognise it for what it was. (page 110)

Madness has been haunting Flemyng: Because in these corridors – balance and rational though we believe ourselves to be – there’s madness on the loose. (page 326)

If you like a quick easy read, then The Madness of July is not the book for you. It, however, like me, you like a book that makes you think, that keeps you on your toes as you read, that both puzzles and entertains you, then you’ll probably enjoy it as much as I did.

James Naughtie (pronounced Nochtee, or – /ˈnɔːxti/ as it is given in Wikipedia, which doesn’t mean anything to me) is a British radio and news presenter for the BBC. From 1994 until 2015 he was one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme. He is now a ‘Special Correspondent’ with ‘responsibility for charting the course of the constitutional changes at the heart of the UK political debate’, as well as the BBC News’s Books Editor, contributing a book review to the Saturday morning editions of Today. The Madness of July is his first novel. He has also written books on politics and music. He was born in Aberdeenshire and lives in Edinburgh and London.

His second novel, Paris Spring, also featuring Will Flemyng, is due to be published in April this year.

…………………….

Reading Challenge: Read Scotland 2016 and What’s in  Name? 2016 – in the category of a book with a month of the year in the title.

My Week in Books: 16 March 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: I’m currently reading, and loving so far, The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle by Kirsty Wark, a book I bought a couple of years ago. My copy is the hardback version, which is a joy to hold and read.

Blurb:

Born just before the First World War, Elizabeth Pringle has been a familiar yet solitary figure on the Scottish island of Arran. A dutiful daughter, an inspirational teacher, a gardener. But did anyone really know her? When Elizabeth dies, her will contains a surprise. She has left her home and her belongings to someone who is all but a stranger, a young mother she watched pushing a pram down the road more than thirty years ago.
Now it falls to Martha, the baby in that pram, to find out how her mother inherited the house in such strange circumstances, and in doing so, perhaps leave her own past behind. But first she has to find the answer to the question: who was Elizabeth Pringle?
A captivating and haunting story of the richness beneath so-called ordinary lives and the secrets and threads that hold women together.

I’m still reading SPQR by Mary Beard, a fascinating history of Ancient Rome – see last week’s post for a synopsis. I’m reading the ebook and am currently at 46%. My Kindle estimates it will take me 8 hours and 1 minute to read to the end.

Then: Last week I was undecided about what to read next and had started reading three books, but suddenly it all became clear and I carried on reading Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey, followed up by The Madness of July by James Naughtie. (See last week’s post for the synopses). Two very different books and I enjoyed both of them. I wrote about Tey’s book in this post. I have yet to write one about Naughtie’s book.

Next: As always I’m unsure which book I’ll pick up next. At the moment I’m leaning towards Edwin: High King of Britain: the Northumbrian Thrones 1 by Edoardo Albert, a present from my son for Mother’s Day.

Blurb:

Edwin, the deposed king of Northumbria, seeks refuge at the court of King Raedwald of East Anglia. But Raedwald is urged to kill his guest by Aethelfrith, Edwin’s usurper. As Edwin walks by the shore, alone and at bay, he is confronted by a mysterious figure – the missionary Paulinus – who prophesies that he will become High King of Britain.

It is a turning point. Through battles and astute political alliances Edwin rises to great power, in the process marrying the Kentish princess Aethelburh. As part of the marriage contract the princess is allowed to retain her Christian faith. But, in these times, to be a king is not a recipe for a long life . . . This turbulent and tormented period in British history sees the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon settlers who have forced their way on to British shores over previous centuries, arriving first to pillage, then to farm and trade – and to come to terms with the world view of the Celtic tribes they have driven out.

What are you reading this week – and have you read any of these books? Do let me know.

Jigsaws

I’ve been spending some of my reading time doing jigsaws. I began in January whilst I was reading The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble. Jigsaws are good for you – doing them renews the brain cells, and because they have no verbal content they exercise a different part of the brain, bringing different neurons and dendrites into play.

I began with a Thomas Kinkade jigsaw: Sunday Evening Sleigh Ride (1,000 pieces):

Sleigh Ride Finished P1010859

Then a Ravensburger puzzle of 500 pieces – much easier to do – of a thatched cottage:

Thatched Cottage P1010869Finally, A Bird’s Eye View, a House of Puzzles jigsaw, 1000 pieces, some are varied shapes, making it a bit different from the other jigsaws – this jigsaw has a piece missing!

A Birds Eye ViewYou can see the different shapes (and the space for the missing piece) in the photo below:

a birds eye view P1010871

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym for Elizabeth Mackintosh(1896 – 1952). She was a Scottish author who wrote mainly mystery novels (see the list at the end of this post). I read The Daughter of Time some years ago and thought it was an excellent book, a mix of historical research and detective work. Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital and to keep his mind occupied he decides to discover whether Richard III really did murder his nephews – the Princes in the Tower. I’ve also read The Franchise Affair, which I thought was also an excellent book.

I bought Miss Pym Disposes at the local village hall when I went to vote  in the European Election in June 2014. There was a table full of books for sale – nothing to do with the election, but a bonus for me! Based on the other two books I’d read by Tey I thought it would be a good buy. And it was. It is set in the 1940s and was first published in 1946.

I knew from the synopsis that Miss Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to Leys Physical Training College to give a lecture on psychology. But then there was a’nasty accident‘.

So I was wondering about that ‘nasty accident’ as I began reading the book – who has the accident and is it really an accident, and if so who was responsible for the accident? It all seemed to be plain sailing until something happened that nobody expected and it was that that triggered the ‘accident’. It was intriguing and very cleverly written.

There is a long build up to the accident.  Miss Pym had been a French teacher at a girls’ High School until she inherited some money, left teaching and wrote a best-selling psychology book. She was invited to Leys by her old school friend, Henrietta Hodge, the college Principal and stayed on there for a few days, that extended into two weeks as she got to know and like the students and the staff. However, she realises that all is not as perfect at the college as she had thought, alerted to that fact that when one of the students, Teresa Desterro, tells her that everyone is just a little bit insane in this last week of term – ‘It is not a normal life they lead. You cannot expect them to be normal.‘ Miss Pym observes how strenuous their studies are and the stress and anxiety the senior students go through in their final exams and learn where Henrietta has found jobs for them, or if she has found jobs for them.

This is not a conventional crime fiction novel. It’s a psychological study focussing on the characters, their motivation and analysis of facial characteristics. It looks at the consequences of what people do and say and, as Miss Pym discovers who she thinks is responsible, it also looks at how much a person should intervene, or as one of the characters tells her, ‘Do the obvious right thing, and let God dispose.’ Miss Pym agonises over her decision, was she really going to condemn someone to death?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, such a delight to read, a book that is beautifully written. I thought the slow build up to the ‘accident’ was perfect and I kept changing my mind about who would be involved – and it has such a good twist at the end.

It is the ideal book for these challenges: Bev’s Mount TBR Reading Challenge, her Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt in the category ‘More Than Two people’, and Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge.

Josephine Tey’s books:

Alan Grant
The Man in the Queue (1929) aka Killer in the Crowd
A Shilling for Candles (1936) (the basis of Hitchcock’s 1937 movie Young and Innocent)
The Franchise Affair (1948) (my review)
To Love and Be Wise (1950)
The Daughter of Time (1951)
The Singing Sands (1952)

Novels
Kif: an Unvarnished History (1929) (writing as Gordon Daviot)
The Expensive Halo (1931)
Miss Pym Disposes (1946)
Brat Farrar (1949) aka Come and Kill Me
The Privateer (1952)
Non-Fiction

Claverhouse (1937) (writing as Gordon Daviot) A biography of John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee (1648 – 1689), known as “Bonnie Dundee” after leading the Jacobites to victory at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, in which he lost his life.

My Week in Books: 9 March 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Then – I’m  beginning this post with the book I’ve recently finished reading – Doctor Thorne (see this post for my review). Julian Fellowes’ adaptation of this book is currently on ITV and I was in two minds about watching it, but I thought I’d at least watch the first episode. However, as I expected, there are too many changes from the book for me to enjoy watching it. It is so condensed, and too much is revealed too early, so I have decided not to watch the next two parts.

Now and Next – After finishing Doctor Thorne I couldn’t decide what to read next and began reading three books. This happens to me sometimes and I expect I’ll soon concentrate on just one of these books and go back to the others later.

Blurb: Leys Physical Training College was famous for its excellent discipline and Miss Lucy Pym was pleased and flattered to be invited to give a psychology lecture there. But she had to admit that the health and vibrant beauty of the students made her feel just a little inadequate.

Then there was a nasty accident – and suddenly Miss Pym was forced to apply her agile intellect to the unpleasant fact that among all those impressively healthy bodies someone had a very sick mind…

Blurb: ‘He was sickened also with all these lies. His very soul was dismayed by the dirt through which he was forced to wade. He had become unconsciously connected with the lowest dregs of mankind, and would have to see his name mingled with theirs in the daily newspapers’

Mark Robarts is a clergyman with ambitions beyond his small country parish of Framley. In a naive attempt to mix in influential circles, he agrees to guarantee a bill for a large sum of money for the disreputable local Member of Parliament, while being helped in his career in the Church by the same hand. But the unscrupulous politician reneges on his financial obligations, and Mark must face the consequences this debt may bring to his family.

Blurb: From Radio 4’s James Naughtie, a sophisticated thriller about loyalty, survival and family rivalry deep in the Cold War, drawing on decades of experience as a political insider in Westminster and Washington.

It is a sweltering July in the mid-1970s, and for Will Flemyng, foreign office minister, the temperature is rising with each passing hour. A mysterious death has exposed secret passions in government, bringing on a political crisis that will draw him back into a familiar world of danger and deceit.

For Flemyng has a past. He was trained as a spy for a life behind enemy lines and now he’s compelled to go back. In the course of one long weekend he must question all his loyalties: to his friends, his enemies, and to his own two brothers. Only then can he expose the truth in London and Washington. When he has walked through the fire.

And I’m still slowly making progress with SPQR by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition (I read some of this every day).

Blurb: Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today.

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

What are you reading this week – and have you read any of these books? Do let me know.

Classics Club Spin: Result

The Spin number is 8, which for me is The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot – to be read by 2 May 2016.

I’ve had this book for years, keen to read it after I’d enjoyed Middlemarch, and it has sat unread ever since. I was hoping for Framley Parsonage and have started to read it, so I probably won’t finish The Mill on the Floss by 2 May especially as it is quite long (535 pages in a small font – I think I’ll get a copy to read on my Kindle).

Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classics Club Spin

The Classics ClubIt’s time for another Classics Club Spin.

The Spin rules:

  •  List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
  • Number them from 1 to 20.
  • On Monday the Classics Club will announce a number.
  • This is the book to read by 2nd May 2016.

My List

  1. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  3. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  4. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  6. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  9. Romola by George Eliot
  10. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  11. The Forsyte Saga (1) by John Galsworthy
  12. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  13. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  14. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  15. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  16. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling
  17. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope
  20. The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf

I’d like no.19 to come out as the spin number, as I’ve recently finished reading Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne, or no. 20 as that would fit in with Heavenali’s Virginia Woolf read-along, or maybe no. 15 as it’s been ages since I read anything by Thomas Hardy. But actually I’m happy to read any of these books.

February’s Books 2016

I finished reading six books in February and am in the middle of two more, both long books. Just one book from my TBR shelves this month, and no non-fiction. My unfinished books are SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard and Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope – a three part adaptation of this novel begins on ITV on 6 March.

The six books I finished are:

  1. Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane (review book) – crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders featuring Dr. Kate Moreland as she is once more involved in solving a murder mystery.
  2. Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir (review book) – as the title indicates historical fiction about Henry VIII’s first wife. A detailed fictional biography. My review is to follow.
  3. A House Divided by Margaret Skea – historical fiction set in 1597 in Scotland and France, this is the most gripping story of the feuding clans of Cunninghame and Montgomerie. The historical facts blend seamlessly into the narrative, with beautiful descriptive passages.
  4. Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn – ‘cosy’ crime fiction in the Daisy Dalrymple series set in England in the 1920s – an entertaining book.
  5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (TBR) – fiction of a different style from the other books I read this month, one to make me think. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 this is the Reverend John Ames letter to his young son.
  6. Slade House by David Mitchell (library book) – a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. Once I started I had to read to the end.

Although I enjoyed all the books I read in February and was fascinated by Slade House I have absolutely no doubt about my choice of book of the month – it’s the brilliant

A House Divided by Margaret Skea.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

This is another short post as I am still trying to catch up with writing about the books I’ve read in February. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of them. It is narrated by the Reverend John Ames as he nears the end of his life. Set in Gilead, Iowa in 1956 John Ames is 76, dying of heart disease, and writing a letter to his young son aged 7 telling him the things he would have told him if he had lived to see him grow up. A letter for his son to read when he is an adult.

Ames writes stories of his brother, and his father and grandfather, including tales of what had happened in Gilead, such as the story of the horse that sank into the ground into one of the tunnels the inhabitants had made and the lengths they had gone to get it out and fill in the hole. He also wrote about his beliefs and his relationship with his friend, also a preacher, Boughton and Boughton’s son, Jack. There is a mystery surrounding Jack, what is the ‘great sin’ he committed, why he had left home, what happened to him and why he had come back. Jack is named after John, who struggles to forgive and understand Jack.

In parts I found this a bit rambling and repetitive, reflecting the fact that Ames wrote over a period of time and probably forgot he’d mentioned things before, or because he was emphasising their importance – such as the first time he met his wife, who is a lot younger than him.

I took my time reading because you do have to concentrate and not rush to find out what happened. I enjoyed it and think I would probably get even more out of it on a second reading, especially for the philosophical and religious ideas.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge ( a book I’ve owned for about 8 years).

Slade House by David Mitchell

I was in the middle of reading two books on my Kindle, Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope and SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, when the battery died and I know I could still have continued reading whilst it was re-charging, but I didn’t. Instead I picked up Slade House by David Mitchell, a book I’d been thinking of reading soon and once I started it I didn’t want to stop. It’s not long, just 233 pages and they just whizzed past my eyes in no time.

Apparently it began as a short story on Twitter – but I didn’t know that – and is a sort of sequel to The Bone Clocks – but I haven’t read that, and there is a character near the end who also appears in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet – but I haven’t read that yet either!

None of that mattered. I suppose it’s the sort of book to read at Hallowe’en, but that doesn’t matter either, because I read it, devoured it I could say, yesterday and was thoroughly entertained. It’s a mixture of a ghost story, science fiction and horror. Something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October at Slade House. I read it as a fantasy, something that I couldn’t believe could ever happen (or at least, I hope not) – but that didn’t stop me enjoying it immensely.

It’s not easy to find Slade House. It’s down Slade Alley, which doesn’t normally exist and it only appears to those who have been invited, or are drawn to it. There is a door set into the right hand wall of the alley, a small black iron door with no handle or keyhole, that opens if you’re meant to enter. There you meet a stranger, are invited into the House, and find yourself in a strange and dangerous situation, and there is no way out – eventually you find yourself in a long attic at the top of the stairs – where something terrible happens to you.

The stories begin in 1979 (although in fact it begins much earlier than that) and ends in a strange and mystifying way in 2015. Each story is complete in itself; the people who enter Slade House do not seem to be connected in anyway – a young teenage boy and his mother, a recently divorced Detective Inspector, students on a Paranormal Society field trip, and then the sister of one of the students. The connection is the House and the brother and sister who occupy it – and to say what they were would be to reveal too much. Needless to say that I was hoping each time that the victims would escape their fate. I was gripped both by the individual stories and by Slade House itself, enchanting and darkly sinister. The sense of menace just grew as each victim succumbed and yet tried to warn those who followed.

Now, I’m keen to read both The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I bought a few years ago and is still sitting in my TBR piles and The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t got yet. It just shows how reading one book can seriously disrupt whatever reading plans I had!

A House Divided by Margaret Skea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Challenges: Read Scotland 2016

Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn

I always intend to write about the books I read soon after I’ve finished them, whilst the details and my reaction are fresh in my mind.  But recently I haven’t managed to do so and now have four books to review. I can deal with one of them quickly because I don’t have much to say about it – Styx and Stones by Carola Dunn. This is the seventh book in the Daisy Dalrymple Mystery series (there are 22 in total so far). I’ve read the first three and have been waiting to find the fourth to read them in order, but gave in when I saw this secondhand copy.

Set in the 1920s this is a cosy mystery that doesn’t tax the brain too much. Daisy’s brother-in-law, Lord John Frobisher, asks her to investigate a series of poison pen letters that many of the local villagers including himself have been receiving. So Daisy and her step-daughter, Belinda, go to stay with her sister and brother-in-law. Lord John is anxious to avoid a scandal, but when a murder is committed the local police have to be informed about the letters. Daisy’s fiancé, Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher of Scotland Yard is concerned about Daisy and Belinda, so he gets involved informally, all the time trying to keep Daisy out of danger. The village is a hotbed of gossip, intrigue and resentment, with plenty of people with possible cause to commit murder. I liked the interaction of the members of the WI, bossed by the vicar’s wife and the way Daisy managed to get each of them to talk to her.

Styx and Stones is a quick and easy read, (although I didn’t guess the identity of the murderer until quite near the end) with the focus on Daisy and Alec’s relationship as well as on the poison pen and murder mysteries.

My Week in Books: 24 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m still reading SPQR by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition. I started this a couple of weeks ago and am reading it slowly. It covers 1,000 years of the history of Ancient Rome – it’s about how it grew and sustained its position for so long and confronts some of the myths and half-truths about Rome.

I’ve also started to read Doctor Thorne by Anthony Trollope. I’ve read the first two books in his Barchester Towers series and a year ago I thought I would soon be reading Doctor Thorne, the third book. Well, I’ve now got round to it, spurred on by the fact that ITV will be showing Julian Fellowes’ three-part adaptation of the book early in March and I want to experience the book through my own imagination first, without outside influence. I am enjoying it very much so far. I’m reading the free version on Kindle but I see that OUP are publishing a tie-in edition on 3 March, with a foreword by Julian Fellowes.

I’ve recently finished Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a book I’ve had for about 8 years. Reverend John Ames, a 76 year old, dying of heart disease, is writing a letter to his 7 year old son telling him the things he would have told him if he had lived to see him grow up; the story of his life and that of his father and grandfather, and so much more besides. It’s not a book to rush through and I took my time reading this but still think I would get more out of it on a second reading. So I’ll be a while mulling it over before I review it. And I still have four other books I’ve read recently that I haven’t reviewed! 

What I will be reading next – I never make up my mind what to read next until the time arrives to choose  a book – and it could be a while yet as both the books I’m currently reading are quite long. I’m not sure if I want to carry on with the Ancient Rome theme by reading Catalina’s Riddle by Steven Saylor,  or something completely different and much shorter such as Asunder by Chloe Aridjis, a book I borrowed from the library this week:

Blurb:

Marie’s job as a museum guard at the National Gallery in London offers her the life she always wanted, one of invisibility and quiet contemplation. But amid the hushed corridors surge currents of history and violence, paintings whose power belie their own fragility. There also lingers the legacy of her great-grandfather Ted, the warder who slipped and fell moments before reaching the suffragette Mary Richardson as she took a blade to one of the gallery’s masterpieces on the eve of the First World War.

After nine years there, Marie begins to feel the tug of restlessness. A decisive change comes in the form of a winter trip to Paris, where, with the arrival of an uninvited guest and an unexpected encounter, her carefully contained world is torn apart.

It does sound good – described on the front cover by the Independent as ‘Rapturous and enraptured reading‘ and by the Guardian as ‘Strange, extravagant, darkly absorbing.’

But then again I’d like to read Slade House by David Mitchell (I wrote about this book in my last My Week in Books post).

I’d love to know if any body else has the same difficulties as me in choosing what to read next?

Lustrum and Dictator by Robert Harris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Week in Books: 10 February 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen by Alison Weir, a proof copy – expected publication 5 May 2016. This is the first novel of the Six Tudor Queens series.

Blurb:

A Spanish princess. Raised to be modest, obedient and devout. Destined to be an English Queen. Six weeks from home across treacherous seas, everything is different: the language, the food, the weather. And for her there is no comfort in any of it. At sixteen years-old, Catalina is alone among strangers. She misses her mother. She mourns her lost brother. She cannot trust even those assigned to her protection.

Acclaimed, bestselling historian Alison Weir has based her enthralling account of Henry VIII’s first wife on extensive research and new theories. She reveals a strong, spirited woman determined to fight for her rights and the rightful place of her daughter. A woman who believed that to be the wife of a King was her destiny.

History tells us how she died. This captivating novel shows us how she lived.

I’m also reading SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, the Kindle edition.

Blurb:

Ancient Rome matters. Its history of empire, conquest, cruelty and excess is something against which we still judge ourselves. Its myths and stories – from Romulus and Remus to the Rape of Lucretia – still strike a chord with us. And its debates about citizenship, security and the rights of the individual still influence our own debates on civil liberty today. 

SPQR is a new look at Roman history from one of the world’s foremost classicists. It explores not only how Rome grew from an insignificant village in central Italy to a power that controlled territory from Spain to Syria, but also how the Romans thought about themselves and their achievements, and why they are still important to us.

Covering 1,000 years of history, and casting fresh light on the basics of Roman culture from slavery to running water, as well as exploring democracy, migration, religious controversy, social mobility and exploitation in the larger context of the empire, this is a definitive history of ancient Rome.

SPQR is the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus Populusque Romanus, ‘the Senate and People of Rome’.

I’ve recently finished Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane, crime fiction set in the Scottish Borders.

You can read my thoughts on this book in my previous post.

And next I’ll be reading Slade House by David Mitchell, or at least I think I’ll be reading this next. When the time comes I could fancy something completely different.

Blurb:

Born out of the short story David Mitchell published on Twitter in 2014 and inhabiting the same universe as his latest bestselling novel The Bone Clocks, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a dark and stormy night.

Turn down Slade Alley – narrow, dank and easy to miss, even when you’re looking for it. Find the small black iron door set into the right-hand wall. No handle, no keyhole, but at your touch it swings open. Enter the sunlit garden of an old house that doesn’t quite make sense; too grand for the shabby neighbourhood, too large for the space it occupies.

A stranger greets you by name and invites you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t.

This unnerving, taut and intricately woven tale by one of our most original and bewitching writers begins in 1979 and reaches its turbulent conclusion around Hallowe’en, 2015. Because every nine years, on the last Saturday of October, a ‘guest’ is summoned to Slade House. But why has that person been chosen, by whom and for what purpose? The answers lie waiting in the long attic, at the top of the stairs…

What have you been reading this week and what have got in mind to read next?

Too Soon a Death by Janet O’Kane

Janet O’Kane’s second book Too Soon a Death follows on from No Stranger to Death, set in a fictional village in the Scottish Borders and continues the story of Doctor Zoe Moreland, a widow and one of the doctors at the local health centre. A boy’s body is discovered on the banks of the River Tweed, near the Chain Bridge, linking Scotland and England and Zoe is asked to help identify the body because he had a note in his clothing giving the health centre’s address and phone number – but he was not one of their patients.

Zoe is not without her own problems. I think this book reads well as a stand alone book, but it certainly helps to have read the previous book, which explains her current condition. At the beginning of Too Soon a Death she is still recovering from a vicious attack (details in No Stranger to Death) and is heavily pregnant.

As the events unfold, she receives anonymous phone calls and is followed by someone in a blue car, who at one point almost runs her down. Added to that her best friend Kate Mackenzie, a deaf genealogist, is having problems both with her ex-husband and a client, with disastrous results. Can Zoe trust a new acquaintance, the vet Patrick Dunin – she wonders who it is that keeps phoning him claiming his attention? A large, vicious looking dog attacks Zoe’s own dog and is savaging sheep. Where has he come from? And that is not all – Zoe has secrets in her own past that are finally revealed in this book.

In some respects Too Soon a Murder has a Midsomer Murders atmosphere, and a general ‘cosy’ feel, but it is not without violence. Its main focus, however, is on Zoe, how she is coping with her pregnancy, her plans for Keeper’s Cottage, which she has bought from Kate’s brother and her hopes to become a partner in the health centre. The crimes are investigated by DCI Erskine Mathers and Sergeant Trent, with Zoe’s assistance, although there are things she can’t tell the police because of patient confidentiality. It has a great sense of location (this may be helped because I know the area a little bit, living a few miles away on the English side of the Border), and the characters are well grounded and believable people, even the minor characters such as Margaret Howie, the practice receptionist, comes across as a character in her own right.

My thanks to Janet O’Kane for providing me with a copy to read and review. I’m looking forward to reading her third book, which she is currently writing.

Reading challenges: My first book for the Read Scotland Challenge –  a book set in Scotland.

Bartering, Borrowing and Buying Books

This is a Stacking the Shelves post in which you can share details of the books you’ve added to your shelves, be it buying or borrowing.

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In a week that began painfully with a dentist appointment where I had to suffer water torture during my visit to the hygienist, when the weather was mostly grey and miserable and when the national and international news continued to be bad, I was cheered up by bartering, borrowing and buying books.

Bartering:

Books Feb 2016

Last Tuesday I had another visit to Barter Books in Alnwick. I always enjoy going there and never fail to find books I want to read. One of the joys of going is that you never know what you’re going to find. I like to browse the shelves, looking for books by authors I haven’t read before as well as by my favourite authors.

On Tuesday I’d gone prepared with my list of books to check out, including some of Agatha Christie’s short story collections. It’s either feast or famine at Barter Books for Christie’s books and this time there was only one book of hers, which I’ve already read.

So I decided to browse and picked up a book, which caught my eye from one of the displays at the end of a bookcase and began reading it, sitting down at one of the tables with my cup of coffee. It’s by James Naughtie, a broadcaster who used to be one of the main presenters of Radio 4’s Today programme, so not entirely unknown to me but I haven’t read any of his books before. The Madness of July is his first novel. I read a few pages whilst I sat there, finishing my coffee, and realised that although it’s not the usual sort of book I like – it’s a political/spy thriller – I was enjoying what I read and wanted to read more. So into my basket it went.

Then I went to see if any of the books on my list were on the shelves. I found two – A Place of Execution by Val McDermid and An Officer and a Gentleman by Robert Harris, both books I’d read about on other book blogs – Val McDermid’s book on Kay’s A Reading Life and the Harris book on Roberta’s Books to the Ceiling.

I’ve been meaning to read McDermid’s books for a while now and when I read the opening paragraphs and blurb of A Place of Execution on Kay’s blog, I thought it sounded a book I would like, crime fiction set in the Peak District in the early 1960s about the disappearance of children – a taut psychological suspense thriller.

I seem to be on a roll with Robert Harris’s books, having recently read the last two of his Cicero trilogy. An Officer and a Spy tells the story of the Dreyfus Affair, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans, was sentenced to to life imprisonment at Devil’s Island.

I continued browsing, wandering round the book cases in the different rooms and finally settled on two more crime fiction books – a W J Burley book, Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin, set in Penzance, in which a young girl goes missing after playing the part of the Virgin Mary in the local nativity play; and The Girl in the Cellar by Patricia Wentworth, in which Miss Silver helps Anne, who has lost her memory, but who thinks she has witnessed a murder.

Borrowing:

Mitchell bks P1010863

I went to the library yesterday morning to pick up a book I’d reserved, Slade House by David Mitchell, a much shorter book than Cloud Atlas, which I eventually enjoyed very much. This one is a scary collection of novellas about Slade House between the years 1979 to 2015 in which something nasty happens every nine years at the end of October.

And then because you can’t leave the library without at least a quick look at the shelves I also borrowed Watson’s Choice by Gladys Mitchell, which I gathered from the title and the pipe and deerstalker on the cover has some connection with Sherlock Holmes. And it does because at a party given to celebrate Homes’ anniversary the Hound of the Baskervilles turns up along with the other (invited) guests.

What a coincidence that both these books are by authors named Mitchell! Gladys Mitchell (21 April 1901 – 27 July 1983) was an English author best known for her creation of Mrs. Bradley, the heroine of 66 detective novels. And David Mitchell, the author is not to be confused with David Mitchell, the comedian.

Buying:

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Earlier in the week I bought the e-book of The Queen’s Man by Sharon Penman, when it was on offer as one of the Kindle Daily Deals. It’s set in 1193 when rumours abounded that Richard the Lionheart was dead. And this morning I chose Winter Men by Jesper Bugge Kold as my Kindle First book for February, about two brothers who were both coerced into serving in the SS and their guilt after Germany’s defeat.

Impressionist Gardens

Then yesterday afternoon when I was at the village hall playing carpet bowls (there’s a bookcase of secondhand books in the hall) I bought Impressionist Gardens by Judith Bumpus, a beautiful book of Impressionist paintings, from artists including Monet, Renoir, Pissaro and Sisley. I’m hoping this will inspire my efforts at painting.

I hope some books have come your way too this week!

 

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

In The Secret of Chimneys, Anthony Cade is drawn into a deadly conspiracy when he agrees to carry out an errand for his old friend, Jimmy McGrath. He has to deliver the manuscript memoir of Count Stylptich of Herzoslovakia to a firm of London publishers and to return a packet of letters to a blackmail victim.

It’s one of Agatha Christie’s early ‘thrillers’, first published in 1925. It is also the last full length crime novel of hers that I had left to read. I really thought I had read it but I think I was getting it mixed up with The Seven Dials Mystery, which features some of the same characters and is also set at Chimneys, a large country house, the home of Lord Caterham. The Secret of Chimneys is the first book in which Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard appears. He is an intelligent officer, outwardly impassive and stolid, but who reaches his conclusions applying common sense. Later he appeared in four more of her novels – The Seven Dials Mystery, Cards on the Table, Murder is Easy and Towards Zero.

Agatha Christie declines to describe Chimneys, other than to say it is a ‘venerable pile‘ and that descriptions of it can be found in any guidebook. ‘It is also No. 3 in Historic Homes of England, price 21s. On Thursdays coaches come over from Middleham and view those portions of it which are open to the public. In view of all these facilities, to describe Chimneys would be superfluous.‘ (page 128)

The 1920s upper class life style is evident in the lavish breakfast that is laid on at Chimneys, set out on ‘half a score of heavy silver dishes, ingeniously kept hot by patent arrangements. Omelet, said Lord Caterham, lifting each lid in turn. Eggs and bacon, kidneys, devilled bird, haddock, cold ham, cold pheasant.’ (page 134)

I’m not going to attempt to summarise the plot of this book, other than to say that it revolves around political events in the fictitious Balkan state of Herzoslovakia, with attempts to reinstate its royal family, and also international crime concerning the theft of jewellery  by a thief known in Europe as ‘King Victor’. It reminds me of P G Wodehouse’s books, written in the same light and humorous style.  It is sheer escapism and although it is not one of my favourite of her books, it is an entertaining book.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR challenge and Golden Vintage Mystery Cover Challenge: Bloodstains

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Runaway

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon.

Runaway by Peter May is one of the books I’m thinking of reading this month. I’ve read some of his other books, the Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island and thoroughly enjoyed them, real page-turners. So I’m hoping that Runaway will be just as good.

It begins with a Prologue:

London

He wakes in a cold sweat from a dream pervaded by darkness and blood. And after a lifetime of being someone else in another land, he wonders who he is now. This man, who, he knows, is fading all too soon. A life squandered for a love lost. A life that seems to have passed in the blink of an eye.

and moves on to Chapter One in 2015:

Glasgow

Jack stepped down from the bus almost at the end of Battlefield Road and raised his head towards the darkening sky with a sense of foreboding. He took in the brooding silhouette of the smoke-stained Victoria Infirmary that climbed the hill above the field of battle where Mary, Queen of Scots, was once defeated by James VI, and felt as if someone had just walked over his grave.

Now, reading this, I am keen to read on. Flicking through the book I can see that it alternates between 1965 and 2015.

The back cover reveals that in 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged. In 2015, a brutal murder forces those three men, now in their sixties, to journey back to London and finally confront the dark truth they have run from for five decades.

 What do you think?

Would you keep reading?

January’s Books 2016

This January I read 10 books and reviewed 6 of them. I’m really pleased that I’ve managed to read 8 of my To Be Read Books, 4 of them by Agatha Christie:

  1. In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward (TBR) – her debut novel. This is crime fiction, a complex and puzzling mystery that kept me glued to the book as the mystery of the kidnapping of two girls 30 years earlier is re-investigated.
  2. The Shepherd’s Life: a Tale of the Lake District by James Rebank (TBR, Non Fiction) – an account of a shepherd’s year, arranged by the seasons.
  3. Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie (TBR) – a string of disasters, involving not only a murder, but also a faked air disaster, radio-active pearls, a leper colony, and secret laboratories all part of a vast organisation masterminded by a wealthy and powerful fanatic.
  4. A Month in the Country by J L Carr (TBR) – As an old man Tom Birkin is looking back to the summer of 1920 when he was asked to uncover a huge medieval wall-painting in the village church of Oxgodby in Yorkshire. A beautiful little book and one to re-read – I loved it.
  5. Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie (TBR) – a murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt, set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC.
  6. Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie (TBR) – a year after the death of Rosemary her husband, convinced she was murdered, holds a party to remember her, when a second death occurs.
  7. Lustrum by Robert Harris (TBR) – the 2nd in his Cicero trilogy, set in Ancient Rome beginning in 63 BC – fascinating.  It brings life in Ancient Rome to life, and brilliantly portrays the characters and their struggle for power.
  8. Dictator by Robert Harris – the third in his Cicero trilogy. This covers the last 15 years of Cicero’s life. I wrote about the beginning of this book in an earlier post.
  9. The Pattern in the Carpet: a Personal History With Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble (LB) – a mix of memoir, Margaret Drabble’s own personal reflections on doing jigsaws and the history of jigsaws and of children’s games and puzzles.
  10. The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie (TBR) – Superintendent Battle is called to Chimneys, a stately home, to investigate a murder, involving diplomatic intrigue, international crime, and a jewel thief known as ‘King Victor’ – entertaining in a Wodehousian style.

I enjoyed all of them and am aiming to write reviews of the Robert Harris books and The Secret of Chimneys before the details fade from my mind.

Three books tie for my Book of the Month because it’s impossible to choose between three excellent books in completely different genres. They are  A Month in the Country by J L Carr, Lustrum by Robert Harris and A Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward – which is also my Crime Fiction Pick of the Month (See Mysteries in Paradise for more Crime Fiction Picks).

Bks Jan 2016

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble

I began reading The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History With Jigsaws in December and finished it this morning. It took me a long time not because it’s difficult reading (it isn’t) but because I only read short sections each day – I often read non-fiction like that.

FOREWORD

This book is not a memoir, although parts of it may look like a memoir. Nor is it a history of the jigsaw puzzle, although that it was what it was once meant to be. It is a hybrid. … This book started off as small history of the jigsaw, but it has spiralled off in other directions and now I am not sure what it is.

It is not the book she meant to write and it is not the book I expected to read. I enjoyed parts of immensely – those parts about her childhood, and life at Bryn, her grandparents’ house in Long Bennington and about her beloved Aunt Phyl (Phyllis Boor) and of course those parts about jigsaws, both personal and historical, about mosaics (looking at them as a form of jigsaw), the history of children’s games and puzzles and amusements. She does ‘spiral off in other directions’ which meant in parts it lacks a clear structure in a sort of ‘stream of conciousness’ style, particularly in her reminiscences and nostalgia about life (reproduced in some jigsaws) in a rural community that no longer exists.

I noted down a few points she made about jigsaws:

  • jigsaws renew the brain cells – that’s good! (page 66)
  • putting away a finished jigsaw can be a sad moment – I agree and usually leave mine for a while before dismantling them. These days I take a photo. (page 94)
  • because they have no verbal content they exercise a different part of the brain, bringing different neurons and dendrites into play. (that’s good too) (page 122)
  • some people disapprove of jigsaws, some of knitting, of card games and other activities and artistic traits. (page 187)
  • jigsaws maybe connected with depression and used as time-killers, filling empty days and evenings (page 242)
  • people can be addicted to jigsaws (page 244)
  • doing a jigsaw is like creating order out of chaos (page 245)
  • jigsaws reproducing works of art helps you learn about art (pages 250-1)
  • jigsaws as metaphors  and simile are everywhere eg wikipedia etc (page 267)

And, of course, reading this book has made me get out a jigsaw to do. This is a Thomas Kinkade jigsaw: Sunday Evening Sleigh Ride (1,000 pieces).

Sleigh Ride P1010859

I don’t think I’m a jigsaw addict, in the same way as I am a book addict, after all I do just a few jigsaws now and then, whereas reading is a constant and I feel lost if I don’t have a book on the go. And you may have noticed (from the side bar) that I am not currently reading a book! Time to find the next one to read …

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Update: January 2016

agatha_christie_rcI thought I’d read all of Agatha Christie’s full length novels, but looking through my list of her books, I discovered that I haven’t read The Secret of Chimneys, one of her earlier books, so I’ve just started reading it. This will complete my reading/re-reading of her crime novels (66 books), although there are three that I haven’t reviewed:

  • The Seven Dials Mystery
  • Murder in Mesopotamia
  • A Pocket Full of Rye

I may have to re-read these three in order to refresh my memory before I can write about them!

First Chapter, First Paragraph: Dictator

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros, where you can share the first paragraph, or a few, of a book you are reading or thinking about reading soon. I’m currently reading Dictator by Robert Harris, the third in his Cicero trilogy.

Dictator

It begins:

I remember the cries of Caesar’s war-horns chasing us over the darkened fields of Latium – their yearning, keening howls, like animals on heat – and how when they stopped there was only the slither of our shoes on the icy road and the urgent panting of our breath.

It was not enough for the immortal gods that Cicero should be spat at and reviled by his fellow citizens; not enough that in the middle of the night he be driven from the hearths and altars of his family and ancestors; not enough even that as we fled from Rome on foot he should look back and see his house in flames. To all these torments they deemed it necessary to add one further refinement: that he should be forced to hear his enemy’s army striking camp on the Field of Mars.

Blurb:

‘Laws are silent in times of war.’
Cicero

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children, his possessions confiscated, his life constantly in danger, Cicero is tormented by the knowledge that he has sacrificed power for the sake of his principles.

His comeback requires wit, skill and courage – and for a brief and glorious period, the legendary orator is once more the supreme senator in Rome. But politics is never static and no statesman, however cunning, can safeguard against the ambition and corruption of others.

Riveting and tumultuous, DICTATOR encompasses some of the most epic events in human history yet is also an intimate portrait of a brilliant, flawed, frequently fearful yet ultimately brave man – a hero for his time and for ours. This is an unforgettable tour de force from a master storyteller.

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I read in The Guardian that this last part of the trilogy marks the culmination of 12 years work. The trilogy as a whole has transported me back into the first century BC when Rome was engulfed in intrigue, conspiracies and civil war as the Roman Republic began to collapse and move into dictatorship and empire.  I’m loving the whole experience. Just as when I was reading the first two books, Imperium and Lustrum, I can’t wait to get back to it each time I have to stop reading.

Stacking the Shelves: 23 January 2016

STSmall

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

Last night I finished reading Lustrum by Robert Harris, the second in his Cicero Trilogy (the first is Imperium). It ends as Cicero goes into exile and so this morning I had to buy the third book, Dictator, which covers the last fifteen years of his life.

Dictator

There was a time when Cicero held Caesar’s life in the palm of his hand. But now Caesar is the dominant figure and Cicero’s life is in ruins. Exiled, separated from his wife and children…

I’ve also borrowed these books from the library. My summaries are adapted from the blurbs.

Library bks Jan 2016

From top to bottom they are

  • Blue Genes by Val McDermid – I was put off reading her books several years ago when I just couldn’t stomach watching the violence and torture scenes in the TV series of The Wire. This sounds a bit different as it is a Kate Brannigan mystery, set in Manchester. The back cover reveals that Kate is having a bad week – her boyfriend has died, her plan to capture a team of fraudsters is in disarray and a neo-punk band wants her to find out who’s trashing their flyposters. It delves into the world of medical experimentation – I’m hoping it won’t be too gory!
  • Hunting Season by Andrea Camilleri – I’ve read a few of his Inspector Montalbano mysteries, but this is historical crime fiction set in Vigàta in Sicily in 1880, when a young man arrives in town and opens a pharmacy – then death arrives an the town and its most noble family will never be the same again …
  • Grace and Mary by Melvyn Bragg – he is one of my favourite authors. This novel is about memory and the slow fading of the mind as John visits his mother in a nursing home and finds that most of all she is longing for her mother, Grace, the mother she barely knew. Reaching from the late 19th century to the present, this becomes a deeply moving, reflective elegy on three generations linked by a chain of love, loss, and courage.
  • No Man’s Nightingale by Ruth Rendell, another favourite author. This is the 24th Inspector Wexford novel. The woman vicar of St Peter’s Church may not be popular among the community of Kingsmarkham. But it still comes as a profound shock when she is found strangled in her vicarage. Inspector Wexford is retired, but he retains a relish for solving mysteries especially when they are as close to home as this one is.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Sparkling cyanideSparkling Cyanide (published as Remembered Death in America) was first published in 1945. It is a novel in which a crime is investigated a year after it was committed.

Rosemary, the wife of wealthy George Barton dies suddenly at her birthday party at a West End Restaurant, the Luxembourg, after drinking a glass of champagne laced with cyanide. Rosemary had been in a depressed and unhappy state of mind after having a bout of influenza.The official verdict was that she had committed suicide but a year on George, having received anonymous letters stating her death wasn’t suicide, is convinced that she was murdered. He arranges another party, this time for Iris, Rosemary’s younger sister, inviting the same guests, hoping to identify the murderer. But his plan goes awry, as after drinking a toast to Rosemary’s remembrance the party ends with yet another death.

Rosemary was a wealthy heiress in her own right and after her death her inheritance had passed to Iris. George had invited Colonel Race* to both parties, but he had been absent both times. He had known George since his boyhood but had only once met Rosemary, who he thought of as ‘a singularly lovely nit-wit – but certainly not a melancholic type‘. He helps Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard to investigate both deaths. As well as Iris and George the guests at the party were Ruth Lessing, George’s efficient secretary, and Rosemary’s friends, Anthony Browne, a man with a dubious past and a politician Stephen Farraday and his wife Sandra.

In a series of flashbacks Agatha Christie highlights each person and their relationships with Rosemary and it appears that each one, including George and Iris had a motive for killing her. I was convinced quite early on that one particular character had to be the murderer, but reading further on I began to have doubts, switching from one person to another. As it turned out I was right about my first suspect – Agatha Christie was expert at writing things that could be taken two ways. If I was right about the ‘who’ I couldn’t work out the ‘how’, particularly for the second death, but knew that where everyone sat at the round table was significant. When that was revealed I thought it was difficult to believe, which is why I don’t place it among her best books – but it’s still a very enjoyable read. And it was popular with the public achieving sales of thirty thousand in the first year of publication.

*Colonel Race – first appeared in The Man in the Brown Suit, also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. His appearance in Sparkling Cyanide was his last. He was an agent working for the British Secret Service, often sent on difficult or sensitive missions. In this book he is over sixty, described as ‘a tall, erect, military figure with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes‘.

Reading Challenges: Mount TBR Reading Challenge and Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category of ‘Bottle/Glass for drinking’.

Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie

In 1945 Agatha Christie published two novels, Death Comes as the End and Sparkling Cyanide, neither of them featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple. By chance these two books are the last full length crime fiction novels by Agatha Christie that I had left to read. There are plenty of short stories of hers that I still have to read and her Mary Westmacott novels as well as her plays, so it is not the end of my reading of her work.

Death Comes as the End

The idea to write a detective story set in Ancient Egypt came from a friend, Professor Stephen Glanville – Death Comes as the End was the result. It is set on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes in about 2000 BC. But in her Authors Note Agatha Christie explained that both time and place are incidental and any other time or place would have served as well. She based her characters and plot on some letters from a Ka priest in the 11th Dynasty:

The letters painted to perfection the picture of a living family: the father fussy, opinionated, annoyed with his sons who did not do as he said; the sons, one obedient but not obviously bright, and the other sharp-tempered, showy, and extravagant. The letters the father wrote to his two sons were about how he must take care of a certain middle-aged woman, obviously one of those poor relations who all through the ages live with families, to whom the heads of families are always kindly, whereas the children usually grow up disliking them because they are often sycophants and makers of mischief. (Agatha Christie’s Autobiography page 514)

From these letters she constructed her story, adding Renisenb, a daughter, Nofret, a concubine for Imhotep, the father, a spoilt younger son and a greedy but shrewd grandmother. He is besotted by Nofret who antagonises the family, setting Imhotep against them. Things come to a head after Nofret has manipulated Imhotep to disinherit his sons and marry her and she is found dead, apparently having fallen from a cliff. More deaths follow.

The mystery in this book is actually not too puzzling. For me, its interest lay in the setting and period details. Agatha Christie, according to her Autobiography had done a lot of reading from books lent to her by Glanville and had also bombarded him with questions about daily life and customs in the 11th Dynasty – such as what food did they eat, how did they cook it, did men and women eat together, what sort of rooms did they sleep in, where did they keep their linen, what sort of houses did they have, and so on?

The end result for me was of authenticity – it all came over as real, the characters were individuals, their relationships were convincing and although Agatha Christie wasn’t happy with the ending, which she changed on Glanville’s suggestion, I thought it was fine. And just as she had pleasure in writing it I had pleasure in reading it.

Reading Challenges: Agatha Christie Reading Challenge, Mount TBR Reading ChallengeVintage Cover Scavenger Hunt for the Golden Age in the category ‘A Green Object’.

A Month in the Country by J L Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vintage Crime Fiction

I’ve been thinking about joining Bev’s Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt, but I didn’t think I had enough books in the Vintage Mystery genre to attempt it.

BUT, the Scavenger Hunt idea appeals to me and so I thought I would have a look at my own books, just to see exactly how many books I do have that match Bev’s definition of ‘Vintage Mystery’, which is:

* All books must be from the mystery category (crime fiction, detective fiction, espionage, etc.). The mystery/crime must be the primary feature of the book–ghost stories, paranormal, romance, humor, etc are all welcome as ingredients, but must not be the primary category under which these books would be labeled at the library or bookstore. 

*For the purposes of this challenge, the Golden Age Vintage Mysteries must have been first published before 1960. Golden Age short story collections (whether published pre-1960 or not) are permissible provided all of the stories included in the collection were originally written pre-1960.  Silver Age Vintage Mysteries may be first published any time from 1960 to 1989 (inclusive).  Again, Silver Age short story collections published later than 1989 are permissible as long as they include no stories first published later than 1989. 

And to my surprise, when I went to my shelves – instead of looking at my list in LibraryThing – I found I actually have 14 books first published pre-1960 and 7 first published between 1960 and 1989 (inclusive). My LibraryThing catalogue is certainly not complete!

So, in theory I do have enough books to attempt the Scavenger Hunt for both eras, provided that the covers show the objects listed for the Hunt! And as I do want to read all these books, it’s a no-brainer, so I’m going to do it. And I’m going in for both Eras!

The idea is  to find as many objects on the scavenger hunt list as possible on the covers of the mystery books you read. The minimum number of items to complete the challenge is six items from the covers of books read from a single Vintage Mystery Era.

These are my books in the Golden Age Vintage era. Some are Penguin books with no pictures on the covers and so I’ll look for alternative covers.

Vintage gold

And these are my books from the Silver Age Vintage era.

Vintage silver

The Challenge runs from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2016. Sign up any time between now and November 1, 2016.  Any books read from January 1 on may count regardless of your sign-up date.

And “On the cover” may apply to either the front or the back cover of the book. For example, if you need a map or a chart for your scavenger hunt list, then Dell Mapbacks are perfect–with the map in question on the back cover. Also, the item should be found on the cover of the edition that you read. If at all possible either post a picture showing the item on the cover or provide a link to a page showing us. Exception:  If the edition you read has no picture whatsoever (hardbacks that have no dust jacket or e-copies, for example), then you may go on another scavenger hunt online to find a cover image–again, please provide a link to the edition used.

This is the list for the Golden Age Era there are 75 items!!! (The Silver Age Era lists the same items.)Scavenger Hunt1

My Week in Books: 13 January 2016

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Currently I’m reading two books:

The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble, subtitled A Personal History with Jigsaws. It’s a mix of memoir, Margaret Drabble’s own personal reflections on doing jigsaws and the history of jigsaws and of children’s games and puzzles. I’ve always loved doing jigsaws and I’m loving this book.

Death Comes As the End by Agatha Christie

I’m also in the middle of reading Death Comes as the End by Agatha Christie. This is a murder mystery set in Ancient Egypt, which despite its historical setting is a typical Agatha Christie mystery as members of a ka-priest’s family are murdered.

Then: this year I’ve been struggling to get rid of an awful cold which has turned into an irritating cough, which has meant that although I’ve still been able to read I haven’t managed to write about most of the books, including this one that I finished a few days ago:

A Month in the Country (Penguin Modern…

A Month in the Country by J L Carr. I love this little book set in the summer of 1920 when Tom Birkin, injured in the trenches in the First World War goes to a Yorkshire village to uncover a huge fourteenth century painting on the wall of the village church. A beautiful book! My post will follow soon.

Next – I been reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime novels and I still have one more to read – Sparkling Cyanide, so that will be my next book.

Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Blurb:

A beautiful heiress is fatally poisoned in a West End restaurant… Six people sit down to dinner at a table laid for seven. In front of the empty place is a sprig of rosemary – in solemn memory of Rosemary Barton who died at the same table exactly one year previously. No one present on that fateful night would ever forget the woman’s face, contorted beyond recognition – or what they remembered about her astonishing life.

Destination Unknown by Agatha Christie

I had no great expectations when I began reading Agatha Christie’s Destination Unknown (first published in 1954) because I’ve not been keen on her stand-alone international intrigue/spy mysteries. But I thought it started very well and I was soon drawn into the story.

It’s the early 1950s and a number of scientists have disappeared, amongst them is Thomas Betterton, a brilliant nuclear scientist, who had discovered ZE Fission. The British Secret Service suspect that he and the other missing scientists have gone beyond the Iron Curtain, either kidnapped, or tempted by money or by the dream of an ideal world, working for the good of humanity. His wife, Olive, has no idea where he is, but sets off for Morocco, ostensibly on medical advice for a complete rest. However, the plane crashes and she is killed before she gets to her destination.

Hilary Craven, whose abundant red hair is similar to Olive’s, is intent on taking her own life, but she is recruited by Jessop, a British Secret Service Agent who persuades her that if she wants to kill herself she could help her country at the same time by impersonating Olive and thus trace Betterton. In doing so it leads her to a secret scientific complex hidden in the High Atlas mountains and a terrifying discovery.

It went over the top with a string of disasters, involving a faked air disaster, radio-active pearls, a leper colony, and secret laboratories all part of a vast organisation masterminded by a wealthy and powerful fanatic. And added to the international intrigue there is also a murder which is only revealed right at the end of the book. If the plot is bizarre and rather weak, and some of the characters are stereotypes, Hilary’s character is more convincing. And as in her other spy thrillers, Agatha Christie uses it as a vehicle for her own concerns about the state of the post-war world, decrying what she saw as the attempt to impose a world order and discipline, where individuality is suppressed. Hilary thinks she:

would rather have a world of kindly, faulty human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy. (page 102)

It’s a dangerous world where

Once you have got into that state of mind where the taking of human lives no longer counts, then if it is simpler to put a little explosive package under a seat in a plane than to wait about at the corner on a dark night and stick a knife in someone, then the package will be left and the fact that six other people will die also is not even considered. (pages 143-144)

Just as true today as in the 1950s!

I am nearing the end of reading Agatha Christie’s full length novels and now have just 2 left to read. Although Destination Unknown is not one of my favourites I did enjoy reading it – it moves quickly and kept me interested in its twists and turns. There’s a lot going on and it’s not easy to know who is telling the truth and who to trust.

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Added on 15th January 2016:

The edition of Destination Unknown that I read has this cover, fulfilling the cigarette/pipe category on the Golden Age Vintage Mystery Hunt card, as well as the Mount TBR Reading Challenge:

In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

I’ve made a great start to 2016 with the first book I’ve read this year. In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward is her debut novel and it is excellent. I’ve been enjoying her book blog, Crimepieces, for a while now, so when I saw that she had published a book, I knew I had to read it. It will certainly be on my list of favourite books at the end of the year.

This is just the sort of book I love – excellent storytelling, moving smoothly between the past and the present as the secrets from the past gradually emerge, great characterisation and a superb location in the Derbyshire Peak District that Sarah Ward obviously knows very well. It is also a complex and puzzling mystery that kept me glued to the book.

In January 1978 two eight-year old girls, Rachel Jones and Sophie Jenkins were walking to school together when a strange woman offered them a lift in her car. Rachel is later found in Truscott Woods but Sophie was never found.  Move forward 30 years when Sophie’s mother commits suicide. Troubled by Yvonne Jenkin’s suicide, the police reopen the case – Superintendent Llewellyn who was on the original team asks DI Francis Sadler and his team, DC Connie Childs and DS Damian Palmer to see if there was anything that had been missed in 1978.

Rachel has very little memory of the kidnapping as she was drugged and she has nothing to add to the statement she made as a child. But prompted by Yvonne’s suicide she tries to remember what had happened and as she is a genealogist her research into her own family history proves to be invaluable. The questions are which child was the target, why was Rachel the only one to escape and what is the significance of her missing socks? The tension and mystery ramp up with a modern day murder, when Mrs Lander, one of the teachers at the girls’ school is found dead in the woods where Rachel was discovered 30 years earlier.

As I read I jotted down a few points that I thought were relevant. These were socks, illegitimacy, missing fathers and was Mrs Lander’s murder connected to the kidnapping and Yvonne’s suicide? It was only near the end of the book that I worked out why these points were relevant.

Connie was my favourite police officer and I liked the relationship between her and Sadler and the competition between her Sergeant Damian Palmer. I also liked the fact that although there are violent deaths in this book they are not described graphically. The weather gets colder and colder as the chilling events unfold and the devastating family secrets are revealed.

This is a powerful and well written crime fiction novel, one that I enjoyed immensely. I’m glad that there is to be a sequel, A Fragile Spring, which will be published later this year. I’m definitely looking forward to reading it.

Reading Challenges in 2016

I’ve been thinking about reading challenges. Each year I see other bloggers setting out their reading challenges and I get keen to join a lot of them.

But what is a ‘challenge’? Dictionary definitions include –

a difficult or demanding task, esp. one seen as a test of one’s abilities or character.

or – an invitation or summons to a trial or contest of any kind; a defiance.

So, I don’t need reading challenges –  reading books is not a difficult or demanding task, and I don’t want to treat my reading as a contest either with others or with myself, by reading either more books or different types of books. I already read as many books as my time allows and I love variety in my reading.

So why do I join reading challenges? It’s because I love reading and I also love making lists and ticking off the books I’ve read. I love looking through my books and seeing which ones will qualify for each challenge. I also like seeing what others are reading, books I may not have heard about. I like the camaraderie, of finding others who love the same type of books as me, of exchanging comments or recommendations.

But each year I find it can become a bind, reading to a set list and I want to branch out and read something different, books not on the lists, books that suddenly seem more enticing.

The ‘challenge’ I enjoyed the most last year was Reading Bingo 2015, that I did at the end of November. It involved looking back at the books I read during the year and fitting them into the relevant squares on the card. In other words read what you want first and then see if they meet the categories on the card.

This is why I’m cutting down on the number of challenges I join.

These are the challenges I’ll be taking part in, by reading and then slotting the books into the various categories:

  • Mount TBR hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block –  this helps me remember to read books that I already own, which for this challenge are books I’ve owned before 1 January 2016.
  • Read Scotland hosted by Peggy Ann at Peggy Ann’s Post – I’ve taken part in this for the last two years and have found that without trying I naturally read books by Scottish authors/books set in Scotland. So for this challenge I’ll see at the end of the year how many I’ve read.
  • What’s In a Name? hosted by Charlie at The Worm Hole – I’ve done this challenge ever since it started and it would be a shame to stop now. It only involves reading 6 books and I’m going to treat it in the same way as Read Scotland by seeing at the end of the year if the books I’ve read slot into the categories.

I’ll also be taking part in Heavenali’s Virginia Woolf read-a-long, reading what I can when I can.

And because I do like making lists I’ll be doing various projects of my own reading and listing books in a variety of genres, such as historical fiction and non-fiction, as my mood and interests lead me, but not linking up to any challenges.

Nonfiction Challenge 2015 Wrap Up

The Nonfiction Reading Challenge was hosted by The Introverted Reader It ran between 1 January to 31 December 2015.

Nonfiction Reading Challenge hosted at The Introverted Reader
Image courtesy of Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The Challenge:  Read any non-fiction book(s), adult or young adult.. You could choose anything. Memoirs, History, Travel – absolutely anything that is classified as non-fiction counts for this challenge.

The levels:

Dilettante–Read 1-5 non-fiction books

Explorer–Read 6-10

Seeker–Read 11-15

Master–Read 16-20

I reached the Seeker level and read more than in previous years.

I read mainly autobiography/biography/memoir, and history:

  1. Wilkie Collins by Peter Ackroyd (Biography)
  2. An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope
  3. Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright (Autobiography)
  4. Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police by Carmen Bugan (Autobiography)
  5. Nothing To Be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes (Memoir, philosophy, reflection on the fear of death, belief)
  6. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Memoir, Falconry, Goshawk, T H White)
  7. Poirot and Me by David Suchet (Autobiography, Agatha Christie’s Poirot)
  8. The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards (Crime Fiction, History, Biography)
  9. Stephen Hawking: His Life and Work by Kitty Ferguson (Biography, Science)
  10. One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville (Biography)
  11. Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan (Memoir, Syria, 1930s)
  12. Alan M Turing by Sara Turing (Biography)
  13. Watching War Films with My Father by Al Murray (Memoir, History, Second World War)
  14. Alan Turing:Unlocking the Enigma by David Boyle (Biography, History)
  15. The Monocled Mutineer by John Fairley and William Allison (History, First World War)
  16. Mrs Jordan’s Profession: the Story of a Great Actress and a Future King by Claire Tomalin (Biography, History)
  17. Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard (Japan, Nuclear Weapons, History, World War Two)
  18. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (Appalachian Trail, USA)
  19. The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson (History, Biography)

2015 Challenges Wrap Up

In 2015 I took part in several challenges. I completed half of them and made good inroads into the rest.

  1. Agatha Christie Reading Challengeongoing – I read 6 books by Agatha Christie. I’ve nearly completed this challenge with just 3 of her full length novels to read. I still have a long way to go to read all her short stories!
  2. Mount TBR Challenge 2015 – I was aiming to reach the summit of Mt Ararat (48 books) and made it to the foothills by reading 39 of my TBR books (that is books I owned before 1 January 2015)
  3. Color Coded Challenge 2015 – completed by reading nine books in different colour categories, either named in the title or being the dominant colour for the cover of the book.
  4. What’s in a Name 2015 – completed. This involved reading books from six categories.
  5. Victorian Bingo Challenge 2015 Completed, by reading five books in the following categories:
    1. Book published in the 1840s, – The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens
    2. Male author – Anthony Trollope: An Autobiography
    3. Female author  – Adam Bede by George Eliot
    4. Book with a name as the title – Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope
    5. Book published in serial (monthly) format – The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins

    Victorian Bingo card

  6. Read Scotland 2015 – completed. My target was the first level to read 1-4 books and I reached the Hebridean Level by reading 9 books.
  7. TBR Pile Challenge 2015 – partly completed by reading 8 books out of the 14 I listed.
  8. Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2015 – My target was 25 books and I read 17 books.
  9. Nonfiction Reading Challenge 2015 – completed. I was aiming for the Seeker Level (16 – 20 books) and I read 19!
  10. 10 Books of Summer Challenge 2015 – not completed, but I read 7 out of the 10 books I listed.

Mount TBR 2015 Final Checkpoint

Mount TBR 2015

For the final checkpoint of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge of 2015 Bev has asked two questions:

1. Tell us how many miles you made it up your mountain (# of books read). If you’ve planted your flag on the peak, then tell us and celebrate (and wave!).  Even if you were especially athletic and have been sitting atop your mountain for months, please check back in and remind us how quickly you sprinted up that trail. And feel free to tell us about any particularly exciting book adventures you’ve had along the way.

I was aiming to reach the summit of Mt Ararat (48 books) and made it to its foothills by reading 39 of the books I owned prior to 1 January 2015. Most of them were really good, with just a few that I thought were not quite as good as I had expected.

2. The Year in Review According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, please associate as many statements as you can with a book read on your journey up the Mountain.  

Describe yourself: The Last Girl
Describe where you currently live: The Old Curiosity Shop 
If you could go anywhere where would you go?:  Barchester Towers
Every Monday morning I look/feel like: A Change of Climate
The last time I went to the doctor/therapist was because: of The Burning
The last meal I ate was: Spilling the Beans
When a creepy guy/girl asks me for my phone number, I’m: Dead Scared
Ignorant politicians make me: consult The Book of Lost and Found
Some people need to spend more time: contemplating The Outcast
My memoir could be titled:Three Act Tragedy
If I could, I would tell my teenage self: that Diamonds Are Forever
I’ve always wondered: about The Dead Secret

Now on to Mount TBR 2016 and reducing my TBR Mountain!

Favourite Books of 2015

I’m now back at home after our Christmas and New Year festivities, which included a family wedding. I am now so far behind with blogging that I’m not going to attempt to catch up with writing about all the books I’ve read. But I’ve got several posts in draft form summing up my reading over the year and this is the first one.

2015 was a good year for books and I read 103 books in total, most of them fiction, but I did read more non-fiction (19) than in previous years, even though I didn’t manage to write about all of them.

Each month I picked a favourite book/s of the month and here are my favourite books of 2015 (the links, where they exist, are to my posts on the books):

January: The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley

February: Wreckage by Emily Bleeker

March: Turn of the Tide by Margaret Skea

April: Dacre’s War by Rosemary Goring & Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers

May: Harbour Street by Ann Cleeves

June: The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

July: The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

August: A Change of Climate by Hilary Mantel

September: The Ghosts of Altona by Craig Russell & A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton

October: House of Shadows by Suzanne Burdon

November: Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin & Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin

December: The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson – I probably won’t get round to writing about this book, but it is an excellent book. This is the summary from Goodreads:

On the fiftieth anniversary of Churchill’s death, Boris Johnson celebrates the singular brilliance of one of the most important leaders of the twentieth century. Taking on the myths and misconceptions along with the outsized reality, he portrays—with characteristic wit and passion—a man of contagious bravery, breathtaking eloquence, matchless strategizing, and deep humanity.
 
Fearless on the battlefield, Churchill had to be ordered by the king to stay out of action on D-Day; he pioneered aerial bombing and few could match his experience in organizing violence on a colossal scale,  yet he hated war and scorned politicians who had not experienced its horrors. He was the most famous journalist of his time and perhaps the greatest orator of all time, despite a lisp and chronic depression he kept at bay by painting. His maneuvering positioned America for entry into World War II, even as it ushered in England’s post-war decline. His openmindedness made him a trailblazer in health care, education, and social welfare, though he remained incorrigibly politically incorrect. Most of all, he was a rebuttal to the idea that history is the story of vast and impersonal forces; he is proof that one person—intrepid, ingenious, determined—can make all the difference.

It’s a difficult choice to make from so many excellent books but my book of the year 2015 is:

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I loved everything about it – the descriptive passages, the mystery, the secrets and the people involved.

Happy New Year and I’m looking forward to reading more excellent books in 2016!

Merry Christmas 2015

This is my last post of 2015 as I’m having a break for Christmas and the New Year, so I’m wishing everyone

I will be back in January 2016 catching up on some reviews of books I read recently.

In the meantime here are a couple of Christmas books I’m reading –

  • Ruth’s First Christmas Tree by Elly Griffiths, a short story about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway’s search for a special Christmas tree for her daughter, Kate’s second Christmas.

And happy reading everyone!

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

I thoroughly enjoyed Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but with
Christmas and New Year just a few days away this is just a brief post to record a few of my thoughts before they fade from my mind.

This is the Blurb:

In the company of his friend Stephen Katz (last seen in the bestselling Neither Here nor There), Bill Bryson set off to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Ahead lay almost 2,200 miles of remote mountain wilderness filled with bears, moose, bobcats, rattlesnakes, poisonous plants, disease-bearing tics, the occasional chuckling murderer and – perhaps most alarming of all – people whose favourite pastime is discussing the relative merits of the external-frame backpack.

Facing savage weather, merciless insects, unreliable maps and a fickle companion whose profoundest wish was to go to a motel and watch The X-Files, Bryson gamely struggled through the wilderness to achieve a lifetime’s ambition – not to die outdoors.

And here’s what I thought:

I was fascinated by it all from the details of the Appalachian Trail itself stretching from Georgia to Maine, to Bryson’s observations about the people he met, the difficulties of walking with a huge backpack, and his relationship with Katz, who struggled to keep up with him. I know what that feels like, hiking with people fitter than you and seeing them march off in front of you, waiting for you to catch up and then setting off again – I felt sorry for Katz.

I can’t say that it made me want to go out and walk for days along a long distance trail, but I did enjoy reading about his experiences and his descriptions of the trail and of the places he visited off the trail. Some of the route sounds very dangerous, such as this for example as Bryson and Katz walked through a snow storm:

… we came to a narrow ledge of path along a wall of rock called Big Butt Mountain.

Even in ideal circumstances the path around Big Butt would have required delicacy and care. It was like a window ledge of path on a skyscraper, no more than fourteen or sixteen inches wide, and crumbling in places, a sharp drop on one side of perhaps 80 feet and long, looming stretches of vertical granite on the other. Once or twice I nudged foot-sized rocks over the side and watched with faint horror as they crashed and tumbled to improbably remote resting places. (pages 100-101)

What? He watched with ‘faint horror’? It terrifies me just to think of being on a path like that! He goes on to say that all the way along this ledge they were half blinded by snow and jostled with wind. It wasn’t a blizzard, it was a tempest and at one point Katz lost his footing and ended up hugging a tree, his ‘feet skating, his expression bug-eyed and fearful’. Oh, no that is definitely not for me.

I liked all the facts about the flora and fauna, and the history of the Trail and indeed about the history connected to the landscape.  Bryson’s descriptions set the scene so vividly I could easily imagine myself there – too easily in the hard places, but also in the beautiful locations, such as this in the Shenandoah Valley:

… a spacious, sun-dappled dell, tucked into a bowl of small hills, which gave it an enchanted secretive feel. Everything you might ask of a woodland scene was there – musical brook, carpet of lush ferns, elegant well-spaced trees … (page 204)

I wished it had an index and that the map of the Trail was more detailed, oh and some photos would have been good. I shall have to wait until I see the film to really see what the Trail is like.

I set out to write just a brief post! But there is so much more that I could have written that really it is just a brief post.

Imperium by Robert Harris

With not many days left until Christmas and the New Year I’ve just about got time to write a bit about two books I’ve read this month from my to-be-read books. I’ll be writing about the second book in a later post.

The first one is Imperium by Robert Harris, the first in his Cicero Trilogy.

I love historical fiction and over the years I’ve read quite a lot of it, including novels set in Ancient Rome, so I’m familiar with the characters in this book, but not about all the details that Robert Harris has packed into Imperium.

Beginning in 79 BC, this book set in the Republican era is a fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero by Tiro, his slave secretary. Tiro was a real person who did write a biography of Cicero, which has since been lost in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Tiro is credited with the invention of shorthand. Harris has based Imperium on, among other sources, Cicero’s letters, which Tiro had recorded, successfully interweaving Cicero’s own words with his own imagination.  It is basically a political history, a story filled with intrigue, scheming and treachery in the search for political power as Cicero, a senator, works his way to power as one of Rome’s two consuls.

The first part of the book (and I think the best part) covers the trial of Verres, a corrupt governor of Sicily. I found this gripping as it was by no means obvious that Verres would be found guilty. Cicero builds the case against him and the resulting trial is a dramatic showdown.

After that the book dragged just a little bit for me as it moved on to describing a complicated struggle to change Rome’s government from a Republic to having an Emperor as absolute ruler. But it picked up again towards the end and overall I thought this was a very good book and I’m keen to read the second in the trilogy, Lustrum.

In such a short post as this is I cannot go into much detail – and the novel is very detailed. I marked many passages that struck me as interesting and felt much of the struggle for power applies as much today as it did in Ancient Rome. I’ll finish this post with one quotation (there are plenty of others I could have chosen):

You can always spot a fool, for he is the man who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election. But an election is a living thing – you might almost say, the most vigorously alive thing there is – with thousands upon thousands of brains and limbs and eyes and thoughts and desires, and it will wriggle and turn and run off in directions no one ever predicted, sometimes just for the joy of proving the wiseacres wrong. (page 471)

The Official TBR Pile Challenge 2015

official tbr challenge

This year I’ve been attempting to do The Official TBR Pile Challenge 2015, hosted by Adam from Roof Beam Reader. The Challenge was to read 12 books from my “to be read” pile. Two alternates were allowed, just in case you just couldn’t finish a book for whatever reason.

The books you read must have been on your bookshelf or “To Be Read” list for AT LEAST one full year and you have to list them in advance.

For the final wrap up post Adam asks:

If you didn’t finish; what kind of progress did you make?  1 of 12?  6 of 12?  Even reading one book is a step in the right direction, so if you gave it a shot – good for you!

Which books from your list did you love?  Which ones did you hate?  Plan to read any of the leftovers in 2016?

I was a bit doubtful that I’d complete this challenge because I often find that planning in advance what I’m going to read doesn’t work for me – I seem to find reasons for reading other books instead of the ones on my list!

These were the 14 books I listed:

TBR pile 2015

I didn’t read all the books, but  I didn’t do too badly, finishing 8 books out of 14.

Books I finished:

  1. The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood (pub 1994 – on my TBR since 2009) Finished 2 September 2015. At times I thought it was too detailed and I just wanted to get on with the story. But overall I thought it was very good, and in parts excellent.
  2. The Burning by Jane Casey (pub 2010 – on my TBR since 2013) Finished 9 February 2015. I really enjoyed this, the first the DC Maeve Kerrigan series.
  3. Zen there was Murder by H R F Keating (pub 1960 – on my TBR since 2012) Finished 22 July 2015.It’s a mixture of Zen Buddhism and murder and For most of the time I was completely bamboozled!
  4. Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin (pub 1995 – on my TBR since 2011) Finished 12 November 2015. I loved this book about the actress Dora Jordan and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .
  5. Fresh from the Country by Miss Read (pub 1960 – on my TBR since 2012) Finished 21 August 2015. Set in the early 1950s , this is a novel about Anna Lacey, a newly qualified teacher. A bit disappointing compared to Miss Read’s Fairacre and Thrush Green novels.
  6. The Interpretation of Murder by Jed Rubenfeld (pub 2006 – on my TBR since 2007) Finished 9 April 2015. This began well but I lost interest and at times I felt it was slowed down too much by psychological exposition and debate.
  7. The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (pub 2010 – on my TBR since 2013) Finished 21 June 2015. A book that really captured my imagination. I loved everything about it.
  8. Diamonds are Forever by Ian Fleming (pub 1956 – on my TBR since 2011) – Finished 18 December 2015. An entertaining if not a mind-stretching book. I enjoyed it.

Books I didn’t read/finish:

  1. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (pub 1994 – on my TBR since 2008)
  2. The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (pub 2007 – on my TBR since 2007) I began reading this but  abandoned it as I found it so confusing and I don’t like the fact that  it’s written in the third person present tense, which I find awkward.
  3. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens (pub 1844 – on my TBR since 2007)
  4. Bad Land by Jonathan Raban (pub 1985 – on my TBR since 2011)
  5. We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (pub 1997 – on my TBR since 2011) – I’ve started reading this one.
  6. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell (pub 1949 – on my TBR since 2011)

Apart from The Needle in the Blood I hope to read these books next year.

This was my first attempt at this challenge and will be the last as Adam at RoofBeamReader will not be hosting this next year!

Stacking the Shelves: 19 December 2015

STSmall

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

I’ve added just one book to my Kindle this week:

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries: The Most Complete Collection of Yuletide Whodunits Ever Assembled

Blurb

Here, for your yuletide reading pleasure, are the collected crimes of Christmases Past and Present: sixty classic Christmas crime stories gathered together in the largest anthology of its kind ever assembled. And its an all-star line-up: Sherlock Holmes, Brother Cadfael, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Rumpole of the Bailey, Inspector Morse, Inspector Ghote, A.J. Raffles, Nero Wolfe and many, many more of the world’s favourite detectives and crime fighters face unscrupulous Santas, festive felonies, deadly puddings, and misdemeanors under the mistletoe. Almost any kind of mystery you’re in the mood for – suspense, pure detection, humour, cozy, private eye, or police procedural – can be found within these pages.

Includes stories from (many of which are difficult or nearly impossible to find anywhere else): Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Isaac Asimov, Sara Paretsky, Ed McBain, Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Mary Higgins Clark, H.F Keating, Donald E. Westlake and John Mortimer and more.

I couldn’t resist getting it! Some of the authors are familiar to me, some I’ve heard of and some are completely new-to-me. I hope to read some before Christmas.

I’ve also borrowed two from the library this week, which I’ll probably leave until after New Year. They are:

Blurb

A promise made to a dying man leads forensics ace Enzo Macleod, a Scot who’s been teaching in France for many years, to the study which the man’s heir has preserved for nearly twenty years. The dead man left several clues there designed to reveal the killer’s identity to the man’s son, but ironically the son died soon after the father.

So begins the fourth of seven cold cases written up in a bestselling book by Parisian journalist Roger Raffin that Enzo rashly boasted he could solve (he’s been successful with the first three). It takes Enzo to a tiny island off the coast of Brittany in France, where he must confront the hostility of locals who have no desire to see the infamous murder back in the headlines. An attractive widow, a man charged but acquitted of the murder–but still the viable suspect, a crime scene frozen in time, a dangerous hell hole by the cliffs, and a collection of impenetrable messages, make this one of Enzo’s most difficult cases.

I’ve enjoyed Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy. I hope this works well as a stand alone book as it’s the fourth Enzo Macleod book and I haven’t read the first three.

And

Blurb

This charming series of Victorian murder mysteries features mild-mannered Inspector Witherspoon of Scotland Yard and, more importantly, Mrs Jeffries, his housekeeper. A policeman’s widow herself, her quick wits allow her to nudge the Inspector in the right direction to solve the crime.

When a doctor is discovered dead in his own office, Mrs Jeffries is on the look-out for a prescription for murder, determined to discover the culprit, despite how her employer feels about interviewing suspects . . . “He hated questioning people. He could never tell whether or not someone was actually lying to him, and he knew, shocking as it was, that there were some people who lied to the police on a regular basis.”

Emily Brightwell is a new-to-me author. I thought I’d see what this one is like.

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming has been on my TBR shelves since 2011 and is one of the books I listed to read as part of the To Be Read Pile Challenge 2015.

This is the edition I read

I’ve seen most of the James Bond films but never read any of the books before. It was not as action packed as I expected but full of quite lengthy descriptions of what the characters looked like and the clothes they wore, and about gambling and horse racing. I like description but this got a bit tedious, although I did like Fleming’s descriptions of the locations from the African desert to Hatton Garden jewellers and the casinos of Las Vegas. Here for example is a description of the view from the plane taking Bond to New York, as the sun came up

… over the rim of the world and bathed the cabin in blood.

Slowly with the dawn, the plane came alive. Twenty thousand feet below, the houses began to show like grains of sugar spilt across a brown carpet. Nothing moved on the earth’s surface except a thin worm of smoke from a train, the straight white feather of a fishing boat’s wake across an inlet, and the glint of chromium from a toy motor car caught in the sun; but Bond could almost see the sleeping humps under the bedclothes beginning to stir and, where there was a wisp of smoke rising into the still morning air, he could smell coffee brewing in the kitchens. (page 62)

There is very little action until about half way through the book. It is easy to read and moves at a decent place, once it gets going and despite all the descriptive passages. The plot is quite simple – Bond is assigned to infiltrate and close down a diamond smuggling operation, run by the Spangled Mob, operating from Africa to the UK and the USA. It’s run by a couple of American gangsters, the Spang brothers, and the mysterious character known as ABC.

He meets Tiffany Case, a beautiful blonde, an intelligent and resourceful woman, who was gang-raped as a teenager. By the end of the book she and Bond have fallen in love and survived almost impossibly dangerous situations. Also helping Bond is the American Felix Leiter now no longer working for the CIA,  having lost an arm and a leg in a shark attack, but as a private detective employed by the Pinkerton  Detective Agency.

The James Bond in this book is not quite the James Bond of the movies, but still a very likeable character, with obstinate eyes in a lean brown face – Bond is maybe the one character in this book with not much description. The villains are not as evil and sinister as the movie villains – for example, there’s no Blofeld, or Rosa Kleb or Goldfinger. The Spang brothers are Jack and Serrafimo, who owns a western ranch and ghost town called Spectreville. Then there are a couple of thugs, Wint and Kidd, who come across as caricatures, but they are a serious threat to Bond, who gets quite a severe beating (no gory descriptions), when he is captured, only to  escape with Tiffany, ending in a wild chase across the western desert.

So, overall I think this is an entertaining if not a mind-stretching book. I enjoyed it.

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard

Nagasaki: Life after Nuclear War by Susan Southard is an amazing, heart-wrenching book.

The facts are horrendous – on August 9th 1945, two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, a five-ton plutonium bomb was dropped on the small coastal town of Nagasaki. The effects were cataclysmic.

This must be one of the most devastatingly sad and depressing books I’ve read and yet also one of the most uplifting, detailing the dropping of the bomb, which killed 74,000 people and injured another 75,000. As the subtitle indicates this book is not just about the events of 9 August 1945 but it follows the lives of five of the survivors from then to the present day. And it is their accounts which make this such an emotive and uplifting book, as it shows their bravery, how they survived, and how they were eventually able to tell others about their experiences. Along with all the facts about the after effects of the bombing, the destruction, and radiation, it exposes the true horror of atomic warfare, making it an impressive and most compelling account of pain, fear, bravery and compassion.

Throughout the book the black and white photos illustrate the true horror of the effects of the bomb – photos of Nagasaki both before and after the bomb was dropped, of five survivors – Wada Kohi (aged 18 in August 1945), a street car operator; Nagano Etsuko (aged 16), who worked on a production line in a Mitsubishi airplane parts factory;  Taniguchi Sumiteru (aged 16), who worked at Minchino-o Post Office; Yoshida Katsuji (aged 13), a student at Nagasaki Prefecture Technical School on a ship building course; and Do-oh Mineko (aged 15), formerly a student at Keiho Girls High School, working at the Mitsubishi Arms Factory Onashi Plant. There are also maps showing Japan today and of Nagasaki 1945 showing the Scope of Atomic Bomb Damage.

Susan Southard’s ten years of research has resulted in this impressive book as she reveals what happened in particular to these five survivors, their immediate injuries, the radiation-related cancers and illnesses they have suffered, and their difficulties of daily living still in pain both physical and emotional.

In addition to all that Nagasaki ‘reveals the censorship that kept the suffering endured by the hibakusha [atomic bomb-affected people] hidden around the world. For years after the bombings news reports and scientific research were censored by U.S. occupation forces and the U.S. government led an efficient campaign to justify the necessity and morality of dropping the bombs’ (from the jacket sleeve).

I knew a bit about Hiroshima and Nagasaki before I read this book but it has opened my eyes to the true horror of nuclear war and the need to prevent anything like this happening again.

Many thanks to Souvenir Press Ltd for sending me a complimentary copy for review.

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Souvenir Press Ltd (2 Nov. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0285643274
  • ISBN-13: 978-0285643277

Virginia Woolf Read-a-Long

Virginia woolf2Heavenali is holding a Virginia Woolf read-a-long taking place in 2016.

Starting in January 2016 – the aim is to read 6 books (or indeed more for the real enthusiasts) by or about Virginia Woolf. For each section you simply choose the book or collection that you most want to read.

First and foremost there are no rules – drop in and out as it suits you – if you only want to read the first book – that’s fine. Ali will post six (one every two months) ‘how are we doing’/discussion style posts where links to other posts can be shared.

This is not a reading challenge – I’m thinking of it as a project and one with no goal to read a set number of books. I love the fact that there are no rules with Ali’s read-a-long . I’ll read what I can.

January/February – Getting started with a famous Woolf novel – To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway

March/April – beginnings and endings – The Voyage Out/ Night and Day (Woolf’s first and second novels – or Between the Acts – Woolf’s final novel

May/June – shorter fiction – any collection of short stories. This list of possibles from Wikipedia:
Kew Gardens (1919)
Monday or Tuesday (1921)
A Haunted House and Other Short Stories (1944)
Mrs Dalloway’s Party (1973)
• The Complete Shorter Fiction (1985)
Carlyle’s House and Other Sketches (2003)
Oxford World Classics now produce a collection called The Mark on the Wall and other short Fiction – though I don’t know which stories it contains.

July/August – biographies – either Flush, Orlando or a biography of Virginia Woolf.

September/ October nonfiction –essays or diaries. Any essay collection you fancy – there are a lot to choose from but you might want to consider: A Room of One’s Own, Three Guineas, The Common Reader or Virginia Woolf’s diaries. There seem to be a couple of diary collections, including Vintage books Selected Diaries and Persephone book’s A Writer’s Diary (edited by Leonard Woolf).

November/December – another novel – The Years/ Jacobs Room/ The Waves

So far I think I’ll be reading at least some of her short stories/essays, The Voyage Out and Virginia Woolf: a Writer’s Life by Lyndall Gordon and re-reading Mrs Dalloway, and any other of Woolf’s books that come my way next year.

The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

I was a bit doubtful that I would like Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner as it’s written in the present tense, which I usually find irritating. But I needn’t have been concerned because it wasn’t long before I’d completely forgotten the tense and I was totally immersed in the story. And I loved it.

Missing, Presumed is crime fiction, investigating the disappearance of Edith Hind, a beautiful Cambridge post-grad.  Her boyfriend, Will Carter had returned to their flat to find the front door open, coats in disarray and a spatter of blood on the kitchen floor. It’s told from different characters’ viewpoint, each one individually distinct, beginning with DS Manon Bradshaw on the Major Incident Team (her name means ‘bitter’ in Hebrew, but I thought it was Welsh), a lonely disillusioned single woman approaching forty, who overcomes her insomnia by listening to the low murmurings of police reports on her radio.

Edith’s mother, Miriam, Lady Hind, is distraught, wondering if somehow this is fault, her daughter the centre of a drama. Sir Ian Hind, a successful doctor, physician to the Royal Family and a friend of the Home Secretary adds to the pressure the police are under to find Edith. Edith’s friend, Helena comes under suspicion and known offenders are interviewed, but after the first 72 hours she is still missing. The team’s urgency is cooling  as the possibility that Edith is still alive diminishes. Then a dog walker finds a body in the Ouse, near Ely; is it Edith? The search for the killer is intensified.

This has all the ingredients of a successful crime novel for me. My only criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the final section, ‘One Year Later‘ in which the ends are tied up , was necessary. But apart from that I found it gripping and intense. I was intrigued by the multi-layered plot, and thought the characters were fully rounded, believable people, explored with psychological depth – in particular Manon Bradshaw stands out. And, best of all, it is beautifully written.

The Author

Susie Steiner is a novelist and freelance journalist. She began her writing career as a news reporter first on local papers, then on the Evening Standard, the Daily Telegraph and The Times. In 2001 she joined The Guardian, where she worked as a commissioning editor for 11 years. For more information see her website, susiesteiner.co.uk

My thanks to Lovereading for providing an advance proof of this novel, due to be published in February 2016. Missing, Presumed is Susie Steiner’s second book – the first is Homecoming, which I really must read.

And I do hope she will write more about DS Manon Bradshaw.

Classics Club Spin Result

The Spin number is 19, which for me is The Color Purple by Alice Walker – to be read by 1 February 2016.

‘One of the most haunting books you could ever wish to read … it is stunning – moving, exciting, and wonderful’, Lenny Henry.

I’m looking forward to reading it. I watched the film starring Whoopi Goldberg many years ago, which I thought was an excellent film.

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Adding to the TBR Shelves

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

These recent additions to my bookshelves and the ever growing TBR piles are the result of my last visit to Barter Books. I took in two bags of books (20 books), books I’d read and decided I wouldn’t want to re-read, and came home with 7, so I’m still in credit there and at least, for the time being, have fewer books in the house. Six of the books are fiction and just one is non-fiction.

Stacking the Shelves Nov15

From top to bottom they are all crime fiction apart from the last book:

  • Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L Sayers – Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother the Duke of Denver is charged with murder. A series I’m dipping into now and then. This is the 2nd Lord Peter Wimsey book.
  • Strangers and Brothers by C P Snow – currently published as George Passant, this is the first in the Strangers and Brothers series. I read some of the series many years ago, so not sure if I read this one then.
  • Runaway by Peter May – In 1965, five teenage friends fled Glasgow for London to pursue their dream of musical stardom. Yet before year’s end three returned, and returned damaged.
  • The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine – A brother, a sister and a secret. Could you live a lie, to protect the one you love?’
  • Dead Men and Broken Hearts by Craig Russell – the 4th in his Lennox thriller series set in Glasgow.
  • Lennox by Craig Russell – the first in the series set in Glasgow in the 1950s. I love Russell’s Jan Fabel books set in Hamburg so am keen to see if I’ll also love his Lennox books.
  • Pastels for Beginners by Ernest Savage – a book to improve my pastel painting, I hope. This was published in 1980, with lots of detail and mainly black and white illustrations. I’d prefer more colour illustrations.

And yesterday I went to the library and borrowed these:

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  • The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson.  Cath’s review at Read Warbler inspired me to read this book. She loved its conversational tone and Johnson’s insight into Churchill’s character – what made him tick. I reserved this book.
  • The Pattern in the Carpet: a Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble – a book that’s been on my wish list for years and there it was just sitting on the library shelves. Drabble describes is as a ‘hybrid’ – not a memoir, nor a history of jigsaws, although that is what she intended to write. It spiralled off in other directions and she is not sure what it is!
  • Katherine Mansfield: a Secret Life by Claire Tomalin. I reserved this book for two reasons – I’ve recently read some of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories and I’ve enjoyed other biographies written by Claire Tomalin.

Now I need to get reading!!

The Classics Spin

The Classics ClubIt’s time for another Classics Spin.

  • List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
  • Number them from 1 to 20.
  • Next Monday the Classics Club will announce a number.
  • This is the book you need to read by 1 February 2016.
  1. Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R D Blackmore
  2. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
  3. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  4. Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens
  5. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  6. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  7. The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
  8. Romola by George Eliot
  9. Silas Marner by George Eliot
  10. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  11. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell
  12. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  13. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell
  14. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
  15. The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
  16. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  17. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  18. Doctor Thorne  (Barsetshire Chronicles, #3) by Anthony Trollope
  19. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  20. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

I really don’t mind which one comes up in the Spin!

Five of the Best for November 2011-2015

This was originally Cleo’s idea (Cleopatra Loves Books). It’s to look back over your reviews of the past five years and pick out your favourite books for each month from 2011 – 2015. I like it so much it inspired me to do the same.

I really enjoy looking back over the books I’ve loved reading. These are some of my favourite books for each November from 2011 to 2015 (click on the titles/covers to see my original reviews). November is apparently the month where the crime fiction books I’ve read have been my favourite reads.

Three of the five books are Ian Rankin’s Rebus books – November is the month he’s published his latest books and November is the month I read them.  Ian Rankin is one of my favourite authors and his Rebus books never fail to impress me both with their ingenuity and the quality of their plots and characterisations.

2011

White Nights by Ann Cleeves – the second in her Shetland Quartet, featuring Detective Jimmy Perez, set mainly in Biddista, a fictional village of a few houses, a shop, an art gallery and restaurant called the Herring House, and an old Manse. A man’s body is found, hanging in the hut where the boat owners of the village of Biddista keep their lines and pots. Perez recognises the dead man – he’s the mystery man who had caused a scene the previous evening at the opening of Bella Sinclair’s and Fran Hunter’s art exhibition.

This book is not only full of believable characters, each one an individual in their own right, it also has a nicely complicated plot and a great sense of location. It’s the place, itself, that for me conveyed the most powerful aspects of the book. The ‘white nights’ are the summer nights when the sun never really goes down. They call it the ‘summer dim’, the dusk lasts all night, and in contrast to the bleak, black winters, fills people with ‘a kind of frenzy‘.

2012

Standing in Another Man’s Grave by Ian Rankin. This is the first book after Rebus’s retirement in which he is working for SCRU – the Serious Crime Review Unit, a Cold Case unit of retired police officers, investigating the disappearance of a young woman missing since 1999, and linking it with later cases of missing women all in the vicinity of the A9. He also clashes with Malcolm Fox of Edinburgh’s internal affairs unit – their dislike is mutual.

I  was gripped by this book and liked the way Rankin included characters from earlier books, such as Big Ger Caffety, Siobhan Clarke, now a DI, and in particular Malcolm Fox.

2013

Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin. I think this is one of his best – a realistic and completely baffling mystery. a complex, multi-layered case, linking back to one of Rebus’s early cases on the force as a young Detective Constable. Rebus is now back on the force, the rules on retirement age having changed, but as a Detective Sergeant. Once more he is under scrutiny by Malcolm Fox. There are suspicions that Rebus and his colleagues, who called themselves ‘The Saints of the Shadow Bible’ were involved in covering up a crime, allowing a murderer to go free.

The interaction between Rebus and Fox is one of the joys of this book. Beneath his controlled exterior Fox is just as much a loose cannon as Rebus, he’s not a team player either and it is fascinating to see how Rebus gets under his skin and reveals Fox’s true nature.

2014

And now for a different author, but still crime fiction:

Blue Heaven by C J Box. I loved this book, the first one of C J Box’s books that I’ve read. The action takes place over four days in North Idaho one spring. It’s a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.

I loved the writing style – straightforward storytelling, with good descriptions of locality and characters; characters that are both likeable and downright nasty, but not caricatures. It’s a book that got right inside my mind so that I found myself thinking about when I wasn’t reading it and keen to get back to it. And the ending was what I hoped, and also dreaded it would be.

2015

Back to Rebus – although I also loved Claire Tomalin’s Mrs Jordan’s Profession.

Even Dogs in the Wild –  Now, two years later on from The Saints of the Shadow Bible Rebus is on his second retirement, working in a ‘consultative capacity’, albeit not as a cop and with no warrant card or real powers and with no pay. Once more this is a complicated plot, involving Malcolm Fox now seconded to the team of undercover cops from Glasgow, gang warfare, and Big Ger Cafferty. There are so many deaths and twists and turns that my mind was in a whirl as I tried to sort out all the characters.

Rankin, as usual, successfully combined all the elements of the crime mystery with the personal lives of the main characters and at the same time highlighting various current political and social issues.

Is this the last we’ll see of Rebus? Only time and Ian Rankin will tell.

November’s Books

I read a variety of books in November, one biography, one book of short stories, and 7 novels, four of which were crime fiction. All enjoyable reads:

  1. Silver Lies by Ann Parker (from my Kindle TBR), a murder mystery set in 1879/80 in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colarado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
  2. A Fear of Dark Water by Craig Russell (Library Book) the sixth book featuring Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission set in Hamburg.
  3. Even Dogs In the Wild by Ian Rankin – the latest Rebus mystery.
  4. Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin (Biography, TBR),  the story of actress Dora Jordan and her relationship with the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV .
  5. A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro,  the story of a widow, Etsuko living in Britain, as she reminisces about her past life in Japan shortly after the war, living at the edge of the wasteland of Nagasaki.
  6. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (Library Book), a beautiful book with, lovely lyrical descriptions, somewhat magical and mystical and underlying the text is the changing position of women in society in the 1920s.
  7. Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield, a collection of fourteen short stories originally published in 1920.
  8. The Abbess of Whitby: a Novel of Hild of Northumbria by Jill Dallaway (Review Book), historical fiction set in 7th century Britain.
  9. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas (LB), the 8th book in her series of Commissaire Adamsberg books, an intriguing mystery full of  eccentric and quirky characters.

My book of the month is a draw between, Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin and Mrs Jordan’s Profession by Claire Tomalin; impossible to choose between two excellent books in completely different genres.

Nov 15 bks

 

The Abbess of Whitby by Jill Dalladay

The Abbess of Whitby is subtitled A Novel of Hild of Northumbria. As Jill Dalloway explains in her Author’s Note at the end of the book what we know about Hild (St Hilda) comes from the Jarrow monk Bede’s  A History of the English Church and People written 40 years after her death. He gave no information about her between the ages of 13 and 33, so Jill Dalloway has based her fictional account of her life up to the age of 33 on the works of various modern scholars, assuming that like other royal girls of the time she was married for dynastic or political purposes. The major characters are historical, with a few exceptions and Hild’s husband and son are fictional. Hild was born in 614 and died in 680.

Knowing very little about the historical background to the story I found this a fascinating book, but could not have followed it very easily without the list of characters, the family tree of the royal families of Northumbria and the maps showing the Peoples of 7th Century Britain and of Hild’s Northumbria. I was surprised by how much people travelled in the 7th century. It spurred me on to find out more and I am now reading The King in the North: the Life and Times of Oswald of Northumbria by Max Adams. I would also like to read Edwin: High King of Britain and Oswald: Return of the King both by Edoardo Albert.

About two thirds of the book covers Hild’s early life, from the time she was chosen to lead the handmaidens of the fertility goddess  Eostre. It’s a time of transition as people are gradually being converted to Christianity, although at first it appears to be a matter of politics rather than of faith. Her marriage to Cerdic of the Goddodin tribe took her to Din Edin (Edinburgh). When home and family are lost in Oswy’s sack of Edinburgh, she finds herself in enemy hands, but meets the charismatic Aidan (St Aidan of Lindisfarne). The final part of the book covers her life as she helped establish various chapels and finally settled in Whitby as the Abbess there, involved in resolving the Easter dispute at the Synod of Whitby in 664. This settled that the calculations to establish the date of Easter would be according to the customs of Rome, rather than the Celtic customs practised by Irish monks at Iona and also to observe the monastic tonsure.

For me the first two thirds  of the book, showing the disputes between the separate kingdoms in Britain in the 7th century, the  transition from pagan to Christian beliefs and the harsh conditions and plague people had to endure, came to life more successfully than the later chapters.

I received this book for review from the publishers via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Program.

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Lion Fiction; 1st New edition (21 Aug. 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1782641548
  • ISBN-13: 978-1782641544

Jill Dalloway is a classicist, historian and former head teacher who pioneered the Cambridge Latin Course. She lives in Whitby.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

I really enjoyed The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. It’s full of  eccentric and quirky characters, an intriguing mystery beginning with the death of an old woman, killed with breadcrumbs, then a car is burnt out with someone inside, and a pigeon is found with its legs tied together so it can’t fly.

But the main mystery Commissaire* Adamsberg has to solve is the strange tale a woman from Ordebec, a little village in Normandy, presents to him.

Blurb:

‘People will die,’ says the panic-stricken woman outside police headquarters.

She refuses to speak to anyone besides Commissaire Adamsberg. Her daughter has seen a vision: ghostly horsemen who target the most nefarious characters in Normandy. Since the middle ages there have been stories of murderers, rapists, those with serious crimes on their conscience, meeting a grisly end following a visitation by the riders.

Soon after the young woman’s vision a notoriously vicious and cruel man disappears. Although the case is far outside his jurisdiction, Adamsberg agrees to investigate the strange happenings in a village terrorised by wild rumours and ancient feuds.

My thoughts:

This is the 8th book in Fred Vargas’ series of Commissaire Adamsberg books. I’ve previously read two, so I’ve a bit of catching up to do. But although there are obviously events that I don’t know about (the appearance of a son, aged 28, that he hadn’t known about, for one thing) this doesn’t detract from the story. I loved all the strange characters – not just the odd people living in Ordebec, but also Adamsberg’s fellow police officers whom he describes as:

 … a hypersomniac who goes to sleep without warning, a zoologist whose speciality is fish, freshwater fish in particular, a woman with bulimia who keeps disappearing in search of food, an old heron who knows a lot of myths and legends, a walking encyclopaedia who drinks white wine non-stop — and the rest to match.” (page 67)

And I also loved the medieval myths and legends forming the basis of the plot: the ghostly army that gallops along the Chemin de Bonneval, led by the terrifying Lord Hellequin.

Adamsberg is a thinker – but a vague thinker – he works mainly on intuition, and in this book his intuition and deductive reasoning have to work overtime. I was thoroughly immersed in this book, enjoying the humour as well as the mystery, intrigued to see how the crimes came together and how the pigeon was rescued. It’s original, and maybe not altogether plausible, but most definitely a treat to read.

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of the French historian, archaeologist and writer Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau.

*Commissaire is roughly the equivalent of a British Superintendent. His colleagues’ ranks in descending order are commandant, lieutenant and brigadier.

Reading Bingo 2015

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I saw this on Cleo’s blog and think it’s a good way of looking back at what I’ve read over the year so far. Here’s my version. Some of my choices could go in more than one square, and for some squares I could have chosen lots of books!

I think this is the best way of tackling a Reading Bingo card – read the books you want to read and then see where they fit into the squares.

A Book With More Than 500 Pages

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – This is a sentimental tale but it’s also full of weird, grotesque and comic characters, a mix of everyday people and characters of fantasy. It has elements of folklore and myth, as Nell and her grandfather, go on an epic journey, fleeing from the terrifying dwarf, Daniel Quilp and travelling through a variety of scenes, meeting different groups of people on their journey.

A Forgotten Classic 

The Dead Secret by Wilkie Collins – A dying woman, Mrs Treverton commands her maid, Sarah Leeson, to give her husband a letter confessing a great secret. I don’t think The Dead Secret is in quite the same league as The Moonstone or The Woman in White, but it has all the elements of a good mystery story, drawing out the secret in tense anticipation of its revelation.

A Book That Became a Movie 

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum –  This was first published in 1900, made into a Broadway Musical in 1902 and a film in 1939. I’d seen the film and also a stage version in a local amateur dramatic society production some years ago, but not read the book. It’s pure escapism, which I would have loved as a child.

A Book Published This Year

The Ghosts of Altona –  an outstanding book, one of the best I’ve read this year. It won this year’s Bloody Scotland Crime Novel of the Year. Jan Fabel, the head of Hamburg’s Murder Commission, has a near-death experience when he is shot by a suspected child killer, which has a profound effect on his life and the way he views death. Two years later his first case as a detective is resurrected. It’s very cleverly plotted, multi-layered and complex and I loved it.

A Book With A Number In The Title

Three Act Tragedy by Agatha Christie – This is one of Agatha Christie’s earlier books and is full of baffling clues, conjuring tricks, clues concealed in conversations, with larger than life personalities, and above all with puzzles to be solved. Poirot plays a secondary role, and it is Mr Satterthwaite and Sir Charles Cartwright who investigate the deaths.

A Book Written by Someone Under Thirty

I think most of the authors I read this year are over 30, but some may be under! I don’t know!

A Book With Non Human Characters

Dreamwalker by James Oswald – Inspired by Welsh folklore this is a magical tale of the young dragon, Benfro and the young boy, Errol, born on the same day.

A Funny Book

I haven’t read any funny books as such this year! But Watching War Films With My Dad: a Memoir by comedian Al Murray (AKA The Pub Landlord) comes closest. It’s very funny in parts.

A Book By A Female Author

I’m spoilt for choice, but have chosen The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. I loved everything about it – the descriptive passages, the mystery, the secrets and the people involved. Another contender for the best book I’ve read this year. It moves between time periods from 2011, back to the 1960s and also to the 1940s, cleverly written and so well plotted – I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

A Book With A Mystery

Again I’m spoilt for choice and have picked The Burning by Jane Casey,  the first in the DC Maeve Kerrigan series. Four young women have been brutally murdered, beaten to death and their bodies burnt in secluded areas of London’s parks. When a fifth body is discovered it appears to be the work of The Burning Man – but is it, there are slight differences? Is it a copy-cat killing?

A Book With A One Word Title

Wreckage by Emily Bleeker – well written, full of suspense, tension and drama as well as love, loss and longing. This is the story of Lillian Linden and Dave Hall, who were being interviewed following their rescue from a deserted island in the South Pacific where they had spent two years after their plane crashed into the sea. The thing is their interviews are full of lies – they are desperate to keep what really happened a secret from their families.

 A Book of Short Stories

Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield, a collection of fourteen short stories originally published in 1920. As with all short story collections I liked some more than others. These are about the relationships between men and women, about childhood, growing up and loneliness.

 Free Square

For this I’ve chosen a book that once I started reading it I didn’t want to stop  – The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley. It’s the story of Tom and Alice beginning in 1928 in Hertfordshire and moving backwards and forwards in time and place to 1986, from Paris, to London, Corsica and New York; a love story, as well as a story of loss, discovery and grief as the decisions we make impact not just on our own lives but on those of others too.

A Book Set On A Different Continent

Come, Tell Me How You Live by Agatha Christie Mallowan. In 1929 and 1930 Agatha Christie travelled on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. The emphasis in the book is on her everyday life on a dig excavating the ancient sites at Chagar Bazar, Tell Brak and other sites in the Habur and Jaghjagha region in what was then north western Syria.

A Book of Non-Fiction

Spilling the Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright, who was an English celebrity chef – one of the Two Fat Ladies, a television personality, writer, businesswoman, and former barrister. Despite all her difficulties and her alcoholism this is an upbeat autobiography, ending on a positive note: “Believe me on one thing: I have a splendidly enjoyable life”. And believe me this is  a ‘splendidly enjoyable’ autobiography.

The First Book By A Favourite Author

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro, a beautifully written book, describing the countryside around and in Nagasaki after the Second World War, referring to life before the war, and how not only the landscape but also the people and traditions were altered in the aftermath of the atomic bomb.

A Book I Heard About Online

The Golden Age of Murder:The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story by Martin Edwards. I read about this on Martin Edwards’ blog. This is the story of the writers who formed the Detection Club between the two World Wars. Edwards sets the authors and their works in context – that period when Britain was recovering from the horrors of the First World War, living through an age of austerity as unemployment grew, the cost of living soared leading to the General Strike whilst the rich partied and saw the beginnings of the end of the British Empire.

A Best Selling Book

Even Dogs In the Wild by Ian Rankin – the latest Rebus book. Rankin, as usual, successfully combines all the elements of the crime mystery with the personal lives of the main characters and at the same time highlighting various current political and social issues, such as the involvement of public figures in child abuse cases and the effect this has on the individuals concerned and their families.

A Book Based Upon A True Story

Catching the Eagle by Karen Charlton – a novel set in Northumberland in the early 1800s and based on the true story of her husband’s ancestors. Jamie Charlton was accused of robbery  and was transported as a convicted felon to New South Wales. Did he or did he not steal the money?

A Book At the Bottom Of Your To Be Read Pile

An Autobiography by Anthony Trollope Autobiography Trollope 001– I’d almost forgotten about this book because I’d had it for so long that the pages had yellowed and it’s a bit worn and damaged from moving house. I found it fascinating because it is not only his life story – his unhappy childhood, his work in the Post Office, including his work in Ireland and abroad, his marriage and family life and his love of hunting, but Trollope also writes a lot about his writing, criticises his own books and discusses his fellow writers.

A Book Your Friend Loves

Burying the Typewriter: Childhood Under the Eye of the Secret Police by Carmen Bugan, recommended by a friend at my local book group, this is a childhood memoir of political oppression and persecution during Romania’s Ceausescu years. I struggled a bit at first with the style of writing in the historic present tense, but then I often have problems reading the present tense.

A Book That Scares You

A Dark and Twisted Tide by Sharon Bolton, a Lacey Flint murder mystery that is such a terrifying novel, particularly if like me, you have a fear of drowning, a grim tale with a great sense of foreboding and mystery.

A Book That Is More Than 10 Years Old

Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Jane Austen. Three stories not published in Jane Austen’s lifetime, written between 1793 and 1817. They are so different from each other, probably reflecting the different periods of her life when they were written. And I can’t decide between Lady Susan and Sanditon which one I like best.

The Second Book In A Series

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers – this is the second of her books featuring Harriet Vane, a crime fiction writer, although it’s the seventh featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. It is an example of the puzzle type of crime fiction – incredibly complicated and seemingly impossible to solve.

A Book With A Blue Cover

A Question of Identity by Susan Hill, the 7th Simon Serrailler book. The main theme in this book, as the title indicates is ‘identity’ and its importance, how it is concealed, whether a personality can be changed convincingly and completely, or whether eventually the façade will crack and the real character reassert itself. It’s full of tension and suspense.

Mount TBR Reading Challenge 2016

It’s that time of year when people are thinking about next year’s reading challenges. I’m aiming to cut back on challenges, so I’ll not be taking part in many. But I’ll definitely be doing this one.

Mount TBR 2016

It’s the Mount TBR Challenge 2016 hosted by Bev at My Reader’s Block. It’s the most simple challenge – read your own books – that is, books you’ve owned prior to January 1, 2016. No library books. (See this post for more information.)  I don’t know exactly how many TBRs (under this definition) that I have – it’s a lot. And actually I wouldn’t want to have it any other way. It means I’ve always got a choice of books to read and I enjoy browsing my own shelves.

My target for 2016 is to read as many of my own books as I can, which realistically could be 36 books as I like to read library books and newly acquired books (new or used) as well.

These are the challenge levels:

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

Agatha Christie Reading Challenge Update

agatha_christie_rcIt’s been a while since I’ve written about where I’m up to in reading my way through Agatha Christie’s crime fiction novels and short stories.  In fact it’s been months since I last read an Agatha Christie book!

The list of the books I’ve already read is on this page. I still have many of the short stories to read but just four novels!!

I’m aiming to read these four remaining novels by the end of this year:

  1. The Murder at the Vicarage – (Miss Marple)
  2. Death Comes as the End
  3. Sparkling Cyanide (Colonel Race)
  4. Destination Unknown