Sunday, 30 December 2012

Reading Plans 2013

I've decided to make an effort to reduce the size of my TBR pile in 2013 by taking part in the TBR Pile Challenge hosted by Roof Beam Reader. The twelve books I have chosen from my TBR pile are as follows:

Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
And Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Time's Legacy by Barbara Erskine
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
The River King by Alice Hoffman
The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West

All have been on my TBR shelf for more than a year, as per the rules of the challenge.

At the beginning of this year I chose six books to re-read because I felt I was never making time to go back and revisit books I have enjoyed. I felt it worked well, so I'm going to do the same this year. The six books I've chosen are:

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett
Amanda & the Eleven Million Mile High Dancer by Carol Hill
Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg
The Quincunx by Charles Palliser
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

I haven't done very well with the Challenges which I signed up for in 2012 and I think the main reason for this is that I haven't been organised enough. So in 2013 I am going to set up a reading list at the beginning of each month and hopefully in that way I can keep on top of things.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Dead Scared by SJ Bolton

This is a book I received through Goodreads and the first one I have read by SJ Bolton. I have heard good things about her, so I was looking forward to it.

Lacey Flint is a police officer who is working undercover, posing as a Cambridge University student. There has been a spate of suicides amongst female students at the university. The methods the women have chosen to kill themselves are highly unusual - one sets herself on fire, another decapitates herself. What the women seem to have in common is that they were struggling in some way, lonely or depressed, or having trouble with their studies. This wouldn't be unusual in suicides, but the methods and the number of deaths have drawn the attention of the police, who suspect foul play. Lacey's role is to act the part of a vulnerable student, both to find information about the women who have died, but also to possibly draw out the killer.

The only person at the university who knows Lacey's true identity is Dr Evi Oliver, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic at which the most recent victim was a patient. Evi seems to be being targeted by someone who wants to break her;

Evi stopped, willing the wind to soften so that she could hear the snigger, the scuffle of feet that would tell her someone was watching. Because someone had to be watching. There was no way these cones had blown on to the path. There were twelve in all, one in the exact centre of each flagstone, forming a straight line right up to the front door. 

I thought this was an enjoyable book, the short chapter helped to keep up the pace and I didn't know how it was going to end. I did wish that I had read the previous book in the series because I felt that I could've done with a bit more understanding of the relationships, particularly between Lacey and her superior officer, Mark Joesbury. But other than that, I enjoyed it.

I got a couple of new books this week. I visited a quirky gift shop in Stockton, Who Ray, which has a few shelves of second hand books. I picked up A Writer's Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham which is described as 'a fascinating glimpse into the life and mind of the man who wrote some of the greatest novels and short stories of this century'.

I also won a book! I won a copy of The Labyrinth of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers in a competition from Harvill Secker. 'Over two hundred years ago Bookholm, the City of Dreaming Books, was destroyed by a catastrophic firestorm.' It looks like an interesting read.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

This story begins with the death of Barry Fairbrother, a parish councillor in the picture perfect village of Pagford. His death leaves a space on the parish council, the 'casual vacancy' of the title. This is a tumultuous time for Pagford, they are finally within sight of getting rid of The Fields, a council estate on the edge of the village which comes under their jurisdiction. Many see The Fields as a burden, and its residents as an expensive drain on Pagford's resources.

No part of Pagford's unwanted burden caused more fury or bitterness than the fact The Field's children now fell inside the catchment area of St Thomas' Church of England Primary School. Young Fielders had the right to don the coveted blue and white uniform, to play in the yard beside the foundation stone laid by Lady Charlotte Sweetlove and to deafen the tiny classrooms with their strident Yorvil accents.

Yorvil is the local town to which The Fields will become attached if the vote is carried.

The election is the backdrop against which the story takes place. We see the arguments played out for and against keeping The Fields (Barry had been for keeping it part of Pagford). There is snobbery at work, there is fear of difference, it's easy to laugh at the pretensions of those who want to get rid of The Fields. But in the character of Terri Weedon JK Rowling presents us with a dilemma. Terri is a resident of The Fields. She is a drug addict, a prostitute and a thief. She's had two children taken into care, and the two she has at home with her suffer because of her neglect and chaotic lifestyle. I can recognise that Terri had a chaotic childhood and was neglected herself. I know that addiction is an illness. I can sympathise with her and think that she should be offered help. But, truthfully, I wouldn't want to live near her. So what do we do with the people who live at the edges of society, how do we help them, who is it who helps them? By setting her story in a small village JK Rowling brings the questions very close to home. It's not faceless bureaucrats making sweeping policy decisions. It's people like you and me deciding where we stand.

I really like the way JK Rowling captures the teenage characters in the book. While the adults are getting on with the election their children are dealing with problems of their own. Many of the problems are of their parents making. Krystal Weedon is perhaps the most pivotal character in the book. In a way she exemplifies everything Pagford fears about The Fields. She is loud, crude, haphazard, angry and disrespectful. But she is also protective of her mother, Terri. She loves her little brother and is determined to keep him from being taken into care. She is very upset about the death of Barry Fairbrother, who was a mentor to her and helped her believe in herself. With a bit of support Krystal could make something of her life, but now that Barry has gone who will give her that support?

JK Rowling is a great storyteller and I found myself completely drawn into this book. I thought it was thought provoking, and it left me feeling a bit sad. I'd recommend it.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A House Unlocked by Penelope Lively

In this book Penelope Lively uses her memories of Golsoncott, her grandparent's house in Somerset to discuss social changes in England during the twentieth century. Each chapter is titled according to items  in the house which Lively remembers, and these items are the starting point for the discussion. So, for example, the second chapter is entitled 'The Children on the Sampler'. It begins with a description of a fire screen which was embroidered by her grandmother, who was a very accomplished needlewoman;

It is formal and stylized, in the sampler tradition, with the house at the top and beneath it significant elements of the garden - lily pond with goldfish shimmering beneath the blue stitched water, dovecot with white doves, sundial, mole and molehill, frog, toad, dragonfly.....Below that is the stable block, horses peering from loose boxes, each named, and a row of prancing dogs beneath - Sheltie and Waif and Merlin and the famous Dingo, a real Australian dingo bought from London Zoo by my aunt Rachel. At the very bottom is a line of children. Not as you might think, grandchildren, but the wartime evacuees.

Lively then goes on to write about the evacuees who were billeted at Golsoncott, and more generally about the effect of the evacuation on the country. Other chapters cover the opening up of the West Country to tourism with the coming of the railways, the role of the church in rural life, and garden history, among other subjects.

Lively's references to her own family history have the effect of making the subjects personal and real, but she isn't sentimental about the past. I don't think I have read any of Penelope Lively's novels, and this book has made me want to seek them out.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Northern Lights by Lucy Jago

This is a fascinating book about Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries endeavoured to discover the science behind the Northern Lights.

Birkeland was a professor in the Faculty of Science and Mathematics at Christiana University. A man who was used to the comfort of a library or laboratory, his investigations led him and his team into some dangerous situations. The places best suited for viewing the Lights were also often isolated and subject to freezing temperatures. A member of his first expedition lost his fingers to frostbite. But Birkeland inspired loyalty in his students and they were willing to face danger with him. When they finally reached their base on that expedition the Lights appeared in the night sky;

Birkeland understood for the first time why the Lights had defied neat explanation: they appeared not to belong to Earth but to space. Seemingly beyond human comprehension, they reached straight into the souls of those who witnessed them as an appearance of the angelic host or the Holy Spirit might do. The glowing banners in the sky were so entrancing that the group forgot the cold and remained outside, entering the hut occasionally to eat or drink but re-emerging to watch the breathtaking display dancing over their heads.

Money to fund his research was a constant problem in the early days and he had to spend time away from his studies to engage in money-making schemes. Some of these were very successful and allowed him to direct his own studies without being controlled by the university. This did produce some professional jealousy which made his life difficult at times. His work didn't receive the recognition it should've in his lifetime. I am very ill-educated about science but the impression I got from the book was that his theories threatened the status quo and the Royal Society in London stood out against them. Without the approval of the Royal Society, he found it difficult to be taken seriously elsewhere.

It was quite a sad life, but a fascinating book. I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I have heard that, with the right atmospheric conditions, they can occasionally appear as far south as North East England, but I am yet to see them.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Girl Reading by Katie Ward

I first heard about this book on The TV Book Club and thought it sounded interesting. It is structured as a series of short stories, though all are linked. The first story takes place in 1333, and then we make our way through history until we're in the future, in 2060.

All the stories are about the making of images of women reading. The first one is about a young orphan girl named Laura, living in Siena, who is chosen to be the model for a painted alterpiece. The second is about Esther, who works as a servant in the house of an artist in Amsterdam. As we move through the book we see the styles of art develop, through painting and photography and computer graphics. Also the roles of the women change. Laura and Esther have very few choices in their lives, whereas the later women are more empowered.

I think my favourite story is set in 1916 and is about Gwen, a 15 year old girl who is staying at the house of Cynthia Everard, an academic. I think that Ward captures Gwen beautifully. She is so self-centred and dismissive of people, including Cynthia, who she pities for being unmarried and dressing badly. Gwen is in love with Laurence Fern, an artist who is also a guest of Cynthia. When an elegant, sophisticated lady friend of Laurence's arrives, Gwen is devastated.

Gwen slides to the floor in a heap, for there is nowhere on the ample furniture to rest a spirit as battered as hers. Armchairs are too good for her. She must feel the woe and discomfort in her whole body, even in her knees. She must assume the position of melancholy. She is suffering, her heart is in shreds. Laurence Fern, behold your greatest work.

I loved this book and raced through it. I think it would be an excellent choice for a book club, with lots to discuss.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

I think that Hilary Mantel might be my favourite author. At the beginning of the year I decided that she was someone I was going to read more of - and the more I read, the more I like.

Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to the Man Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall. It continues following the career of Thomas Cromwell as he navigates his way through the hazards of the court of Henry VIII.  Of course Cromwell is a hazard himself and many people have to navigate their way around him, and not always successfully.

The story opens a couple of years into the marriage of Henry and Anne Boleyn. We all know how this works out for Anne, so it shows Mantel's amazing skill as a novelist that the story is gripping. She creates an atmosphere of tension and peril. The mood at Henry's court is fraught, a place where even the most favoured can suddenly fall from grace and end up in the Tower. Henry himself is often afraid.

You would think, to look at Henry laughing, to look at Henry praying, to look at him leading his men through the forest path, that he sits as secure on his throne as he does on his horse. Looks can deceive. By night, he lies awake; he stares at the carved roof beams; he numbers his days. He says 'Cromwell, Cromwell, what shall I do? Cromwell, save me from the Emperor. Cromwell, save me from the Pope.' Then he calls in his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and demands to know, 'Is my soul damned?'

Cromwell is usually portrayed as a villain, but here he is a much more rounded character. Certainly his main priority is his own security and advancement. He is amassing a huge fortune from the monasteries and through bribes. He bears grudges. He will sacrifice innocent people if it serves his purpose. He is a man grieving for the loss of his wife and two daughters. He is a loving and attentive father to his son Gregory. He can be a loyal friend. He is knowledgeable about a huge range of subjects and he is good company. I liked him, though of course I wouldn't want him as an enemy.

There will be a third book in this series which I am really looking forward to. In the meantime I have another of her books, Beyond Black, on my TBR shelf.

Monday, 17 September 2012

The Big Four by Agatha Christie

I found this the most complicated Christie I have read so far, and I think it's the one I've enjoyed least. I really found it very difficult to follow.

The story begins with Hastings coming back from Argentina for a holiday. He pays a surprise visit to his friend Hercule Poirot. Unfortunately he finds Poirot just about to leave on a trip to South America on a case. As Hastings and Poirot are talking, they hear a noise from one of the inner rooms of Poirot's apartment;

The door swung slowly open. Framed in the doorway stood a man. He was coated from head to foot with dust and mud; his face was thin and emaciated. He stared at us for a moment, and then swayed and fell.

This man tells Poirot of the 'Big Four.' This appears to be an international group of villains, and Poirot is fascinated. He realises that the case in South America is a ruse to get him out of the way and he stays in England and starts to investigate the Big Four.

This is the first Poirot mystery I've read where Poirot seems to be flummoxed at times. I was flummoxed all the time. I'm not writing much because I was so confused that I really can't remember the details of the story.

I read this as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

PhotobucketI read this book as part of the Back To The Classics Challenge hosted by Sarah Reads Too Much. It is the first book by Anthony Trollope I have read, and in fact I had never heard of the Palliser series (of which this is the first) until Rachel at Book Snob reviewed this one.

The story concerns a young woman, Alice Vavasor, and her inability to decide between two men, her cousin George Vavasor and her fiance John Grey. She breaks off her engagement to John and accepts George's proposal. George is an odd character, and I've no idea why an intelligent woman like Alice would choose him over John. He's secretive - and that's never a good sign;

And had it been possible he would have wished that no-one should have known his whereabouts. I am not aware that he had any special reason for this peculiarity, or that there was anything about his mode of life that required hiding; but he was a man who had always lived as though secrecy in certain matters might at any time become  useful to him.

 Alice isn't at all sure that she has done the right thing and much of the book is taken up with her quandary. Her problem is exacerbated by the fact that she is close to George's sister Kate, who is very much in favour of Alice marrying George.

The counterpoint to Alice's story is that of Lady Glencora, a young woman who has been more or less forced into a marriage with Plantagenet Palliser, despite being in love with another man. Her wealth makes her a commodity. Palliser is a rising political star and it is an advantageous match for him

Providing comic relief is Aunt Greenow, a widow in early middle age, left a substantial fortune by her elderly husband, and determined to enjoy it. Like Alice and Glencora, Mrs Greenow is choosing between two men, but on her own terms. Her two suitors, Mr Cheeseacre and Captain Bellfield are falling over each other in their attempts to impress her. But she is enjoying stringing them along and playing the game.

I enjoyed this book and I think it will be one I will return to. Trollope handles serious issues such as marriage and money with a light touch. It's a long book, but I didn't feel I was getting bogged down in it at any point, and I got really involved with the characters.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

Eilis lives with her widowed mother and older sister. It is Ireland in the 1950s and unable to find jobs her three brothers have moved to England to work. Eilis herself is having trouble finding employment. Her sister Rose has a good job with a local firm and tries to get Eilis in there, but to no avail. Then Father Flood, a priest visiting home from America says that he can get her a job at a department store in Brooklyn. So off to Brooklyn she goes.

Once there she finds herself terribly homesick. Fr. Flood arranges accommodation for her in a boarding house run by Mrs Kehoe, another immigrant from Ireland. The other women who rent rooms there are a mixed bunch, and there is nobody Eilis really bonds with. She misses the close relationship with mother and sister and being able to laugh at life's troubles with them. Gradually however she finds her feet, does well at work, and meets a young man, Tony, with whom she falls in love.

Just as she is making a life for herself in Brooklyn a family emergency calls her home. Then she has to make a decision - does she slot right back into her old life, or does she decide to continue with the new one on the other side of the Atlantic.

This is the first book by Colm Toibin I have read and I really enjoyed it. I loved the style of his writing which is very spare with no excesses. Eilis was such a well drawn character, sometimes so passive that I wanted to shake her, and then unexpectedly standing up for herself. I was actually nervous as I got the end of the book because I was worried that she would make the wrong decision. By that I mean the decision I thought she should make! Actually there were pros and cons whatever she decided, it wasn't a clear choice.

So I will definitely be looking out for more books by Colm Toibin. All recommendations gratefully received.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Bleeding Land by Giles Kristian

The Civil War is a subject I feel I should know more about, so I was very pleased to receive this book as part of Transworld's Historical Fiction Challenge.

The story is set in the events leading up to the Civil War and the early part of the War itself. We see it through the eyes of two brothers, Edmund (Mun) and Tom Rivers. They are not aristocracy, but are well-to-do and their father is a Member of Parliament. It is during a visit to London with their father that the brothers realise how divided the country is, and how dangerously close to war.

Everyone knew that as MP for Ormskirk Sir Francis Rivers felt it his duty to keep one ear to Westminster's ancient flagstone floor, but now Mun suspected their father was beginning to think they should have left the city that very morning. For angry crowds of apprentices swarmed around Westminster, converging on Whitehall, and the whisper was that many amongst the nobility had already retreated to their estates."Even the King has quit the city for Windsor," Sir Francis had said. A hot fever was taking a grip of London.

Alongside the big picture of what is happening in the country we also see the more personal story of the Rivers family and how they are affected by everything that is happening. It has an impact on local politics, bullies are emboldened and see an opportunity to grab power. People are forced to take sides, and Mun and Tom take different sides.

I thought that this was a really good story, full of action and incident. It was interesting to see big events  from the perspective of individual, not very important people. I got a sense of how terrifying the whole thing must've been for ordinary people, with no power, completely at the mercy of the opposing armies.

They had come from all across the West Lancashire plain, whole families flocking to Shear House and other estates whose protection they sought against the armed rebels who rode across the country preaching their sedition, decrying their king, beating some who would not waver in their loyalty to His Majesty, and even, sometimes, stringing up those they suspected of papism.

A quick warning to the squeamish (of whom I am one), there is an execution scene quite early in the book which stayed with me a long time after I read it. But that's the worst of it and there's nothing so bad in the rest of the story.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Catch-up part 2

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel
This novel is set in the French Revolution and has as its main protagonists Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins. What Mantel does here (as she does in Wolf Hall) is to take characters who are traditionally seen as out and out evil doers and show a different, more human side to them. She doesn't gloss over their faults or the terrible deeds they commit, but they are rounded human beings, not pantomime villains. This is an absorbing story, and one which I had to concentrate on. There is a vast cast of characters and I had to refer frequently to the character list at the front of the book. How does this work on a kindle? Is possible to mark a page and go back to it without click, click clicking right through the book?

The Good Father by Noah Hawley
This is a thrilling novel about a man whose son shoots an American Presidential candidate. Paul Allen is a successful man who is living a happy, secure life with his second wife and their two young sons. The news of what his son from his first marriage has done completely knocks him off the rails. He is determined to prove his son didn't do it, the more he learns about his son, the more he questions his effectiveness as a father. I thought this was an excellent book.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
This is a real page turner. After the death of her mother Blue van Meer and her father travel seemingly aimlessly around America, never staying anywhere for very long. But when Blue's father decides he wants her to go to Harvard they settle so that Blue can concentrate on her studies and finish high school. Here she falls under the spell of teacher Hannah Schneider and her group of acolytes who are known as the Bluebloods. The Bluebloods think of themselves as the elite of the school but in fact are quite damaged young people. A tragedy occurs, and Blue's life takes a different trajectory. I was a bit unsure about the ending, but did enjoy the book.

A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge
This story begins with Alan meeting his sister for the first time in years. Their mother has died and he wants to sort out the will with her. But she's not interested, though she's glad to see him. This sends Alan's memory spinning back to when they were children in the 1940s and what a wayward girl Madge was. Bainbridge creates the home life of Alan and his family beautifully. Tense and angry inside the house, but everyone must put a united front for the neighbours, it made me tense just reading it. I've read a couple of other books by Beryl Bainbridge and I'll definitely be looking out for more.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Catch-up part 1

I haven't blogged for ages and I don't really know why. I haven't been particularly busy, and I have been reading. Do other people have times when they really just don't feel like blogging? I have a pile of books to write about so I thought I'd do a couple of catch-up posts.

The Mystery of the Blue Train by Agatha Christie
This is a Poirot mystery. Ruth Kettering, a passenger on the Blue Train, is found dead. Her ex-husband is the main suspect, but Poirot thinks that he is wrongly accused. I enjoyed this book very much, it's one of my favourite Christies so far. The plot involves an international jewel thief, which always adds to the  glamour.

Turkish Gambit by Boris Akunin
This is part of the Erast Fandorin series. I really wanted to love this series, but I don't think it's for me. It probably says more about my powers of concentration than the book, but I found the plot difficult to follow. This is from the blurb;

The Russo-Turkish war is at a critical juncture, and Erast Fandorin, broken-hearted and disillusioned, has gone to the front in an attempt to forget his sorrows. Captured by the Turks, he wins his freedom in a game of backgammon, before finding himself the unlikely rescuer of Vavara Suvorova, a 'progressive' Russian woman trying to make her way to the Russian headquarters to join her fiance.

I'm going to try Akunin's Pelagia series, maybe I'll have better luck there.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
I have always assumed that Rushdie's books would be difficult, and have always been a bit scared of tackling them. So when I saw that there was a readalong of Midnight's Children I jumped at the chance to join in, thinking that it would be easier if I was discussing it with other people as I went along. Well, I didn't keep up with the readalong, but as it turned out I loved Midnight's Children and found it a pleasure to read. It follows the unusual life of Saleem Sinai who was born at the exact moment India gained independence from Britain. The time of his birth makes him special, and he has a magical connection with the other Indian children who were born at that auspicious moment. We also learn about his family and their ups and downs as their fortunes rise and fall. It is a funnier book than I expected, and the characters eccentric.

The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza
This is one of the most unusual detective stories I have read. The main story is a tale from Ancient Greece concerning the murder of a young man named Tramachus, and the efforts of Heracles, the Decipherer of Enigmas, to find his killer. But then in the footnotes of the book are messages from the modern day translator of the tale. Spookily, events in the translated story are being echoed in the translator's own life, until he begins to fear for his sanity. So the two stories exist side by side, and the reader wants to know both who killed Tramachus, and what is happening to the translator. I thought this was a really good book and I would recommend it.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I have been very much looking forward to reading this book ever since I first heard about it. Everything about it appeals to me; the fin de siecle time period, a world where magic is real, the fantastical world of the circus. I even love the cover. Sometimes when you are looking forward to a book so much it can't help but be a disappointment - that was not the case here. I loved it. I had to read it quite quickly because someone else had ordered it from the library, which meant that I read great chunks of it at a time and became completely immersed in the story.

The novel follows the characters of Celia and Marco. Celia is the daughter of Hector Bowen, a man who hides his genuine magical ability under the guise of a stage act. Hector enters into a challenge with a mysterious friend of his. We don't know the nature of this challenge, only that it will be Celia who carries it out. She faces a challenger chosen by the mysterious stranger - Marco. Both children are trained in the magical arts, both unsure of what their task actually is, until eventually they come together at Les Cirque des Reves.

Les Cirque des Reves is a fabulous creation. It arrives without any warning and opens only at night. Customers pay their entrance fee and then can wander at will through the tents which make up the circus. Each tent contains an amazing act or exhibition, and the circus is growing all the time with each new tent containing something even more amazing than the one before.

You step into a bright, open courtyard surrounded by striped tents.
Curving pathways along the perimeter lead away from the courtyard, turning into unseen mysteries dotted with twinkling lights.
There are vendors traversing the crowd around you, selling refreshments and oddities, creations flavored with vanilla and honey, chocolate and cinnamon.
A contortionist in a sparkling black costume twists on a platform nearby, bending her body into impossible shapes.
A juggler tosses globes of black and white and silver high into the air, where they seem to hover before falling again into his hands, his attentive spectators applauding.
All bathed in glowing light.

As the circus travels around more and more people become involved in it. There are all the other acts, there are the people who established the circus (having no idea that it was to be the venue for a magical challenge), and there are the customer of the circus. One of my favourite things in the story was the netowork of fanatical circus goers, the Reveurs, who dress in black and white with a flash of red, and always attend the circus wherever it goes.

Celia and Marco are trapped in their challenge, and they become increasingly trapped as the circus grows bigger. But they are not passive victims, both of them are strong characters and they push against their fate.

All in all I loved this book and am looking forward to whatever Erin Morgenstern writes next.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch

This is the sequel to Rivers of London which I thoroughly enjoyed last year. The hero is Peter Grant, who is a constable with the Metropolitan Police in London. He is a trainee at The Folly, the department which deals with magic. He is in fact the first trainee wizard there in fifty years. Grant's superior officer, Inspector Nightingale is still recovering from injuries sustained in Rivers of London so Grant has a lot more responsibility on his shoulders. The case he is investigating concerns the deaths of several jazz musicians. All are perfectly healthy men who die suddenly, apparently of natural causes. But Peter senses that there is something magical involved. His training includes learning to sense the 'vestigia'.

Vestigia is the imprint magic leaves on physical objects. It's a lot like a sense impression, like the memory of a smell or a sound you once heard. You've probably felt it a hundred times a day, but it all gets mixed up with memories, daydreams and even smells you're smelling and sounds you're hearing.

Peter can sense the vestigia in this case, and it gives a strong impression of the jazz standard Body and Soul, which was popular in the 1930s.

While Peter is investigating this case something else mysterious is happening. There seems to be another wizard at work in London. Nightingale was sure that there were no practising wizards left in England apart from himself and Peter - so who is this man and who trained him?

I enjoyed this book just as much as I enjoyed Rivers of London. I feel like I'm getting to know the characters better. Dr Walid ('world-renowned gastroenterologist, cryptopathologist and practicing Scot') plays a bigger role here. There are a couple of genuinely creepy parts, for example the gangster whose disembodied head is kept conscious as part of a fairground attraction. Ben Aaronovitch obviously loves London and this comes through in the writing. It reminds me a bit in that respect of Christopher Fowler's Bryant and May series, and in fact I think that anyone who enjoys those books would also enjoy these.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Catch-up post

Unfortunately I didn't manage to complete all my reading for the Once Upon a Time challenge. I'll get it all done eventually, but thought that I'd do a catch up post for now, to show where I'm at with it.

I've completed Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire and The Watchtower by Lee Carroll. I was looking forward to both of these but I was disappointed by both of them. The blurb for Confessions describes it as 'Set against the backdrop of seventeenth century Holland, Confessions of an  Ugly Stepsister tells the story of Iris, an unlikely heroine who finds herself swept from the lowly streets of Haarlem to a strange world of wealth, artifice and ambition!' It was a lovely setting, and Maguire described it well, but the story just didn't grab me. I still love his novel Wicked, and would definitely look for more of his work.

I probably wouldn't have finished The Watchtower if I hadn't been reading it for the challenge. It is the sequel to Black Swan Rising and it follows Garet to France as she searches for Will. I thought that it was just a series of set pieces, one after the other (something I also thought about Black Swan Rising) and she overcame her challenges so easily that they might as well not have been there.

I also finished The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis, which is the seventh and final book in the Narnia series. I read it aloud to Billy for his bedtime book. In this story a wicked talking ape - Shift, is parading his simple minded donkey friend Puzzle around in a lion skin, pretending that Puzzle is Aslan. This false Aslan is enslaving the Narnians. Eustace and Jill return to Narnia to help. I think that the Christian message is strongest in this of all the books - not worshipping false idols etc. And more than in the other books I felt that the story played second fiddle to the message. I think that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is my favourite of the series. I don't think that Billy was overly impressed with any of them, he much prefers Harry Potter.

So those are the books I've finished. I'm part-way through The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. I'm loving it and will definitely be reading it to Billy at some time in the future. Bilbo Baggins is such an appealing hero. He is so reluctant to leave his comfortable home, but really proves himself when he needs to.

I'm also part way through Arabian Nights, which is a book for dipping into. I borrowed Arabian Nights: A Companion by Robert Irwin from the library to read alongside it and hopefully add to the experience.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

In Arabian Nights: In Search of Morocco through its stories and storytellers by Tahir Shah

I had never heard of this book before I pulled it off the shelf in the library. One of the books I have chosen for the Back To The Classics Challenge is Arabian Nights, and it seemed like this book would be a good one to read in preparation for it. It was a lucky choice - I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Tahir Shah is a writer and film maker who lives with his young family in Morocco. His father was a writer who was very interested in the stories which are handed down through the generations. He believed that they are of importance, not just for their entertainment value, but also as educational tools, teaching us about ourselves, and the culture we live in.

He used to say that the great collections of stories from the East were like encyclopedias, storehouses of wisdom and knowledge ready to be studied, to be appreciated and cherished. To him, stories represented much more than mere entertainment. He saw them as complex psychological documents, forming a body of knowledge that had been collected and refined since the dawn of humanity and, more often than not, passed down by word of mouth.

Morocco is a story-rich society and Tahir Shah takes up the challenge of rooting out the stories and the storytellers, and discovering if they have as much value today as they had in the past.

The book is written in the way the Arabian Nights is written, with the stories overlapping and interlinking. Shah is a very personable writer, he throws himself into his quest and seems very trusting of everyone he meets. He admits that he is a person who is easily ensnared into madcap schemes. What starts as a journey of academic discovery becomes more personal when he meets Dr Mehdi, a retired surgeon who tells him;

"The Berbers believe that when people are born, they are born with a story inside them, locked in their heart. It looks after them, protects them." Dr Mehdi flicked the hood of the jelaba down onto his neck, and sipped his coffee. "Their task is to search for their story," he said, "to look for it in everything they do."

Shah's search introduces him to many fascinating characters, mainly of the older generation who still remember the old way of life. I loved reading this book. My library stocks Shah's previous book, The Caliph's House, and I will definitely be borrowing it in the near future.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark

Muriel Spark Reading WeekThis is the first book by Muriel Spark I have read, and I did so to join in with Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted by Simon at Stuck In A Book and Harriet Devine. The first thing I have to say about it is that it was strange. It was like a puzzle, I wasn't sure what was real and what wasn't or which characters were telling the truth and which weren't.

Elsa and Paul are a couple in late middle-age living in an apartment which overlooks the East River in New York. At first it appears that Elsa is mentally ill and that Paul is caring for her. But as the story progressed I wondered if it was in fact Paul who was ill. Elsa treats Paul quite cruelly, he is insecure and she plays on this, feeding him lies and making him doubt himself. I wondered why he didn't leave her, but they seemed locked together. Their relationship is intense and others get drawn into their orbit and into the  strangeness, including both their analysts, one of whom ends up working for them as their butler!

They have two grown up children, Pierre and Katrina, both of whom are financially dependent on them, but don't really like them. This is Paul and Pierre;

In the summer of 1944, he is telling his son, life was more vivid than it is now. Everything was more distinct. The hours of the day lasted longer. One lived excitedly and dangerously. There was a war on.
Pierre looks ahead at the painting on the wall opposite and wonders if the annual allowance that his mothers gives him on the condition that he keeps on good terms with his father is worth it.

Paul and Elsa met during the war when they both worked in England for a government department which dealt with propaganda and psychological warfare. It is this period of their lives that they keep returning to. Elsa meets a shoe salesman who she says is a German named Helmut Kiel, who they worked with in the war. Paul becomes paranoid and believes that Kiel intends him harm. Then other people from the war start turning up.

I really don't know how to describe this book. I haven't even mentioned the strangest thing of all, which is that Elsa's shadow always faces a different way to everyone else's! I think that the puzzle gets resolved in the end, but even the resolution leaves questions. The copy I borrowed from the library is 168 pages and I think this is just long enough - I couldn't have stood strangeness much longer. I may be making it sound as though I didn't enjoy it, which isn't the case. I did enjoy it, I'm just not quite sure why.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, A Lost Generation Love Story by Amanda Vaill

This is the story of Gerald and Sara Murphy, an American couple who married in 1916, moved to France and became part of a group of artists and writers who became known as the Lost Generation. Their friends included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Both Gerald and Sara were born into well-to-do families, Sara's was more old money, while Gerald's father was a self-made man. Both their families were quite domineering, with definite expectations for their offspring. Gerald and Sara seemed to find freedom in their marriage. By the standards of the time neither of them were young when they married (Sara was 32), they suddenly began to live the life they wanted to. It was as if they both stepped out into the sunshine and began to play.

Gerald gave up his position in his father's business, they moved to Paris as it was cheaper to live there, and he began to paint. His first teacher was Natalia Goncharova, who worked with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes. This opened up a whole new world to them;

......they had been caught in what Gerald later called "a sort of movement," the group of artists and musicians and amateurs and hangers-on that clustered around the Ballet Russes. "You knew everyone in it," said Gerald, "and you were expected to go to the rehearsals, and they wanted your opinion and they discussed it with you."

They decided to settle in the south of France, and it was there they entertained writers and artists such as Fitzgerald and Picasso. Over the years the friendships waxed and waned, but the Murphys seem to have been steadfast friends, offering counsel and, on occasion, financial aid. Sara seems to have been particularly well loved, Gerald was a complex character and more difficult to get to know well.

I began this book expecting to be dazzled and fascinated by the Murphy's glamorous life, and indeed I was. But this book is about more than their famous friends. It also describes a long, close marriage and how it endures. The Murphys had to face terrible tragedies, which depleted them, but somehow they carried on.

I really enjoyed this book, and I want to read more about this period. I am on the look-out for good biographies of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Reading challenges 2012

I'm feeling quite confident with my reading challenges this year. I've read 2 of my books for the Back to the Classics challenge at Sarah Reads Too Much. These were Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope , and Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald.

I've signed up for Carl's Once Upon A Time challenge, which I'm very excited about. I decided to do Quest the Third, which is reading five books which fit the categories and a group readalong of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This fits nicely with the Classics challenge where I have picked Dream for my classic play. Another crossover is Arabian Nights which fits both lists. I'm halfway through Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire. I have to admit that I'm not loving it, which is a shame, as I really enjoyed Wicked. The Last Battle and The Hobbit I was planning to read with Billy, though as we're working our way through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at the moment, I'm not sure we'll get to them before the end of June.

I'm also slowing making my way through Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie for a readalong I read about on The Literary Stew. And I've also signed up for Muriel Spark Reading Week. I'm not being too ambitious with that one, I'm only planning to read one book - The Hothouse by the East River.

At the beginning of the year I decided to set myself a very informal challenge of trying to read more books by Hilary Mantel. I bought three of her books from The Book People at the bargain price of £7.99. I've read A Place of Greater Safety which I thought was really good. I've only managed one of the six re-reads I wanted to do this year - This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M. Homes. So I've got some catching up to do there.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Stop What You're Doing and Read This!

This is a book of essay extolling the virtues of reading. They are by writers, publishers and scientists writing about their personal experiences with books, of their beliefs about the benefits of reading, and of the scientific evidence about what the act of reading does to our brains. The introduction says that;

This year (2011) we learnt that there are many thousands of children across Britain who cannot read competently, that there are thousands who leave primary school unable to put together basic sentences. One in three teenagers reads only two books a year, or fewer, and one in six children rarely reads books outside of the classroom. Many parents do not read stories to their children, and many homes do not have books in them. Stories, and poems, for these thousands of children, are not a source of enchantment or excitement. Books are associated with school, or worse - they are associated with acute feelings of shame and frustration.

I think my favourite essay was the first one, Library Life by Zadie Smith. She writes about the importance of her local library to her reading life and her education. At a time when they are under threat she emphasises the lifeline that libraries are;

It has always been, and always will be, very difficult to explain to people with money what it means not to have money. If education matters to you, well, why wouldn't you be willing to pay for them if you value them? They are the kind of people who believe value can only be measured in money.

The overwhelming majority of books I read as a child came from the library, and I'm sure that being able to browse there, without anybody telling me what I should or shouldn't read, engendered the passionate love of books and reading that's such a joy to me now, and will be to the end of my life.

The other essay which I really enjoyed was The Reading Revolution by Jane Davis. Her biography at the front of the book says that she is 'the Founder/Director of The Reader Organisation, a national charity bringing about a reading revolution by making it possible for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy literature in a direct, personal way.'

The Reader Organisation has established groups where people meet and read together - out loud, and discuss the book or poem as it is being read. People interrupt with comments about the work itself, or with any personal feelings that the reading might've brought up. It seems to be a very, very informal and free flowing way of reading together. Groups have been established in schools, prisons, nursing homes, in hospitals, with psychiatric patients. I thought this essay was fascinating and I really admire Jane Davis, who saw a need and did something about it. She writes;

We must reposition literature in settings - such as workplaces, mental-health services, demential care homes, looked after children services - where its profound worth will be seen for what it really is: the holder of human value, human meaning, and yes, even the secrets of the universe.

Friday, 30 March 2012

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

This novel is narrated by James Sheppard, the local doctor who lives with
his sister in the small village of King's Abbott. The story opens with the death of a Mrs Ferrers, an apparent suicide which shocks and upsets the village. When we first meet the Roger Ackroyd of the title he is alive and well, and has some news to impart about Mrs Ferrars' death - she was being blackmailed. Not long after he makes this revelation he is found dead in his locked study - a knife in his back.

There are a number of suspects, all connected with the victim. Throughout the story suspicion falls on each of them. The most obvious suspect is Ralph Paton, Roger Ackroyd's adopted son. A charming ne'er-do-well, he had quarrelled with his father but had recently been seen in the village after staying away for a number of months. It is Ralph Paton's fiancee who approaches Hercule Poirot to investigate.

Poirot has moved into the house next door to Dr Sheppard. He has retired to the country and given up investigating. However, as he says to Dr Sheppard;

But you can figure to yourself, monsieur, that a man may work towards a certain kind of object, may labour and toil to attain a certain kind leisure and occupation, and then finds that, after all, he yearns for the busy old days, and the old occupations that he thought himself so glad to leave?

So he doesn't take much persuading to take up the case.

I really enjoyed this book, not least because - I guessed the murderer! It was more guesswork than deduction, but I was still quite proud of myself.

I'm working my way through the works of Agatha Christie as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

I had no idea what to expect with this book. All I knew was that it is a re-telling of the story of the Trojan War. Of course I've heard of Helen and that she was kidnapped and that the Greeks went to war to get her back. But that is the extent of my knowledge and I was worried that this book, written by a lecturer in Ancient Greek would be hard going for me. But I had heard very good things about it, so I plunged in.

What I found was a wonderful story. Much of it is set before Helen is kidnapped and the Greeks go to war. The narrator is Patroclus, the princely son of an insane mother and a brutal and uncaring father. After accidentally killing another boy in self-defence, Patroclus is exiled and comes under the care of King Peleus, who has a reputation for taking in lost boys like Patroclus and training them as fighters for his army. Patroclus is a bit of a weakling, not at all skilled, or interested in fighting, so it looks as though his life is going to be short and miserable.

Then Achilles comes into his life. Achilles is the son of Peleus. He is handsome, brave, talented, clever. He is a golden child. He is also part god - his mother is the sea nymph Thetis. An unlikely friendship is established between the two boys. As Achilles' companion Patroclus is exempt from the military training and his life becomes worth living at last.

So the boys grow up together. Achilles perfects his miraculous fighting skills - he is to be the greatest of the Greeks, it is his destiny. But Achilles does not want to fight, he tries to stay out of the developing war with Troy. But Odysseus finds him and persuades him to join the rest of the troops. So Achilles goes to war, where it is prophesied he will die.

I thought that this was a fascinating book, I was completely caught up in it. The friendship between Achilles and Patroclus is wonderfully portrayed with the friendship gradually developing into romantic love. Also very well done is Achilles character development. Once he begins to fight in earnest and sees the respect and awe he commands he becomes a fearsome warrior. He comes to love the power and to be very protective of it. His love for Patroclus is unwavering, but his reputation and standing in the world become more and more important to him. The book has made me want to read more about Greek history and myths and I wish that there was a reading list in the back of the book so I would know where to begin.

Monday, 26 March 2012

A weekend away

On the weekend of Mother's Day the three of us went away to the Golden Sands Caravan Park at Mablethorpe in Lincolnshire. We've been here before - Billy loves it. His absolute favourite thing is to go swimming with his Dad and they went down to the pool both days. While they were there I settled down in the caravan and got some reading done. I finished The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and started and finished The Good Father by Noah Hawley. I enjoyed both of them very much - reviews to follow.
I don't usually look to buy books when I'm with Mark and Billy, they don't enjoy browsing bookshops. But there was a rack of books in the site shop, mainly romances and I wasn't familiar with many of the authors. But to my surprise I spotted a copy of White Corridor, one of the Bryant and May books by Christopher Fowler. At £2.99 I snapped it up.
Sunday was Mother's Day so I could choose where we visited. As it's so early in the season many of the tourist attractions are closed, but we had a lovely visit to the Windmill at Alford. It is a working windmill (though they weren't milling the day we visited) and visitors can climb up inside and see all the inner workings. According to the leaflet, it is considered by many people to be the finest windmill in England. It is certainly a beautiful building. We climbed up the extremely steep wooden steps and through the window could see the five sails glide round. It was surprisingly quiet. Coming down again the signs advised visitors to come down backwards, like a ladder. This we did, very gingerly. The friendly lady on the desk told us that the miller runs down them forward, carrying a huge sack of flour.
We had our lunch at the teashop attached to the windmill. They had a wonderful array of cakes, none of which I could try, because I've given them up for Lent. I snapped a (bad) photo of his lovely decoration - a collection of teapots strung together and hung from the ceiling.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The Passage by Justin Cronin

This is a book which has been on my TBR list for ages, so when I spotted a copy in the library I checked it out immediately. It's a long book at well over 900 pages, but I couldn't put it down - I loved it.

The story starts with a little girl named Amy, born to a mother who loves her but isn't in a position to look after her. So Amy is left in the care of the nuns at the Covent of the Sisters of Mercy. That is until the men from the government come to look for her. From here we go to reading the e-mails of Jonas Lear, a scientist who is part of an expedition to the jungles of Bolivia. the expedition is looking for something (at this stage the reader doesn't know what), and Jonas is concerned about the number of American military personnel who are accompanying the expedition. Something goes wrong and people start falling ill with an unknown disease. The disease finds its way into the general population of the US, and society begins to break down.

This takes up about the first third of the book and then the action leaps forward about 100 years. A small colony of people are living in California. Their whole lives are built around protecting themselves from the virus which has wiped out most of the population. Their small settlement is surrounded by a high wall, and to leave the safety of the wall is a dangerous business. It has to be done sometimes to gather food and to perform maintenance on the electricity generator which provides the settlement with power. The generator is vital because people infected with the virus are very, very sensitive to light, so the lights are kept on at all times. However, unknown to the majority of residents, the generator is wearing out.

The final part of the book involves a trek to try and link up with other outposts of survivors, a brave task as they aren't sure if there is anyone else out there. For all they know they might be the only ones left.

I thought this was a great book and I raced through it. I love stories that are set in the future but have enough of our own world in them to make them recognisable. This was a beautifully realised world, there was nothing that jarred. It seemed entirely possible that in a world where a deadly virus escaped that this could be the result. I've just read on Twitter that the sequel The Twelve will be available in the UK on the 25th October this year. I'm really looking forward to it. This is the trailer for it.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Miss Garnet's Angel by Salley Vickers

I loved this book. The main attraction for me was its setting - Venice. It is somewhere I have always wanted to visit, and Salley Vickers' descriptions have made me want to go there even more.
The story concerns Julia Garnet, a retired school teacher who is somewhat set in her ways. She has shared her home with her friend Harriet for many years, and when Harriet dies, Julia finds herself at a loss. She makes an unusually spontaneous decision to rent out her house and go and live in Venice for a few months.
The rest of the novel is about Venice and its effect on Julia. In learning about the city and uncovering the layers upon layers of stories and myth, she begins to learn about herself and her own life. In England she was a reserved woman who kept herself to herself, but in Venice she gets involved in other people's lives. This doesn't always bring her happiness, sometimes it brings her heartache, but it all helps to chip away at the wall she had built around herself.
Salley Vickers has put a reading list in the back of the book and I will certainly be making a note of some of the books for further reading about Venice.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin

Murder at Deviation Junction is the fourth of the Jim Stringer novels. Set in 1909, Jim Stringer is still in the railway police, and still wishing that he was back working the engines.
A body is found close to the railway line near Saltburn, an apparent suicide - but Jim suspects something more. He also believes that journalist Stephen Bowman knows more than he is saying. The dead man, Paul Peters, was a press photographer, a colleague of Bowman's. Just before he died he had been interested in taking pictures of a Club Train. A Club Train was a sort of chartered train, a group of (wealthy) people who all made the same journey regularly would club together to charter a fancy train where they didn't have to mix with the hoi-polloi. The specific train Peters was interested in ran from Whitby to Middlesbrough, passing the place where his body was found.
I enjoyed this book, I rarely come across a novel set in the area where I live, and it was good to see place names I'm so familiar with popping up. Middlesbrough is a town built on the steel industry, much of which is gone now. It was good to read descriptions of it in its heyday and imagine what it was like.
I was glad to see Jim's wife Lydia back in this one, I missed her in the last. She is a feminist in days when opportunities were just starting up for working-class women like her,

Lydia had spent the past two years fretting about our futures - mine and hers both. Would she end up at the kitchen sink? That was her leading anxiety. She was a New Woman, forward thinking. There was to be a sex revolution, and you knew it was coming by the speed at which Lydia went at her typewriting.

I enjoyed this book, but I definitely preferred the first half to the second half. I thought the second half became a bit far-fetched. But all-in-all I thought it was a good read.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The Litigators by John Grisham

In The English Novel by Walter Allen he says of Benjamin Disraeli as a novelist "His strength lay in his specialised knowledge; it would be almost true to say that he had to become a politician before he became a novelist." If you substituted the word 'lawyer' for the word 'politician' I think the same would be true of John Grisham.

This book is packed with law. It involves a mass tort case against a huge pharmaceutical company, Varrick Labs. It is alleged that one of their drugs, Krayoxx, causes heart attacks. After I'd finished the book I was amazed that it wasn't boring. There is loads of specialised legal stuff, the behind the scenes haggling that goes on in cases like these, which could've been dry as sticks, but in Grisham's capable hands I was whisked along, learning as I went.

The reader sees the case through the perspective of the firm of Finley and Figg. Finlay and Figg are ambulance chasers, on the lowest rung of the legal profession. Oscar Finlay has resigned himself to this, but his partner, Wally Figg, still has big dreams. Wally believes that they can make their fortunes by riding the coat-tails of the Krayoxx case.

We don't really get to learn much about the characters. Oscar is in an unhappy marriage, Wally is a recovering alcoholic - that's about as much as we know. But I don't really think we need to know more than that. The story isn't about the characters, it's about the law and it's about greed. The case is huge, drawing in litigants from all over the US. Varrick Labs is prepared to stand by Krayoxx and fight. They employ a big firm to defend them. An equally big firm is co-ordinating the plaintiffs. Around these two big fish swim hundreds of little minnows, hoping to get in on the action.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I thought that the story was great, and while being entertained, I learned a lot.

The spring flowers are starting to come through in my garden. If I had a bigger garden I would collect snowdrops, which are my favourite flower. I do have these, and I love them. They are called 'Ketton', and the information from the catalogue says that they were introduced 'by EA Bowles after the second world war from the village of that name in Rutland'. There are hundreds of different snowdrops, all subtly different.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Samaritan's Secret by Matt Rees

This is the third in the Omar Yussef series of novels. Omar Yussef has come with his family from his home in Bethlehem to attend a wedding in Nablus. The groom, Sami, is a policeman and he gets Omar Yussef involved with an investigation. There has been a theft from the Samaritan synagogue in Nablus.

'I knew you'd be intrigued, as a history teacher who's knowledgeable about all elements of Palestinian culture.......They are part of Palestinian culture aren't they?'
'The Samaritans? They've been here longer than we have Sami. They claim to be descended from some biblical Israelites who remained in this area when their brethren were exiled to Babylon. In a way, they're Palestinians and Jews and neither, all at the same time.'

The precious Abisha Scroll is the item which has been stolen from the synagogue. It is extremely valuable, not only in monetary terms, but also in religious significance. Then the son of the Samaritan priest is found tortured and murdered, and Omar Yussef finds himself embroiled in a very dangerous situation. It involves the tiny Samaritan community and some of the richest businessmen in the area.

I've enjoyed both of the Omar Yussef novels I've read previous to this, and I enjoyed The Samaritan's Secret just as much. As always I enjoyed learning more about Palestine and way people live there. I have come to realise that I enjoy reading about unlikely sleuths - and Omar Yussef is certainly unlikely. I particularly enjoyed learning more about his family in this book; his complicated marriage to Maryam, and his adored granddaughter Nadia.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie

The story begins with Anthony Cade, a dashing tour guide, who bumps into an old friend in Bulawayo. This friend charges him with two tasks; firstly to deliver a politically sensitive memoir to publishers in London, and secondly to return a packet of incriminating letters to a woman named Virginia Revel.

Once in London Cade has to have his wits about him. There are people who want the manuscript and will go to great lengths to get it. He meets Virginia Revel and together they travel to Chimneys, the stately home of Lord Caterham. Chimneys has a history of being used as a meeting place by the great and the good when subjects of national importance have to be discussed privately. They arrive to find that a murder has taken place, and there is a connection with the memoirs.

This summing up in no way does justice to the complexity of the story. There are almost two stories - the political story surrounding the memoirs, and also an old-fashioned jewel heist. There are some wonderful characters. I particularly loved Virginia Revel, a young widow who's nobody's fool and has an eye for adventure. Together she and Cade reminded me a bit of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford with their devil-may-care attitude. I also loved Inspector Battle, the Scotland Yard policeman who comes to investigate the murder. Understated and a bit taciturn, he sees more than he lets on and there's not much that gets by him.

I didn't guess who the villain was of course, I never do. Though I have to say I don't know how anyone could've worked this one out. Altogether I thought it was a good read and I enjoyed it. I read it as part of the Agatha Christie Reading Challenge

We went to our local RSPB reserve the other day. There is always plenty for kids to do there, and Billy did the Berry'd Treasure Trail which involved finding the special information boards about berries and answering the questions on his clipboard. It was a very sunny day, and I snapped our shadows on the path. We live in a very industrial area, and this reserve is right in the middle of it, but nature thrives here.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

The vision of a tall-masted ship, at sail on the ocean, came to Deeti on an otherwise ordinary day, but she knew instantly that the appartition was a sign of destiny......

This is how the novel opens. That ship, the Ibis, is part of Deeti's destiny, and the destiny of a lot of other people too.

The story is set in nineteenth century India, against the backdrop of the Raj and the opium trade. Deeti's livelihood depends on the trade, but her husband is a useless addict, and she is trapped in the marriage. The Ibis is an old slaving ship which has been refitted to transport opium. An inexperienced crew member, Zachary Reid, finds himself rapidly promoted up the ranks to second mate, as death and disease take the senior officers. The ship is owned by Burnham Bros., a shipping and trading company. Benjamin Burnham is a tough ambitious businessman who is pushing to increase his share of the opium trade. A victim of this push is Neel, the Raja of Raskhali. The Raja's family have invested money with Burnham Bros for years, and have received handsome profits. But Neel has got into debt with Ben Burnham and will suffer the consequences.

This is a very atmospheric story. Water is very symbolic in it, the sea that brings the Ibis, the Ganges which provides a route of escape for Deeti. Neel lives on a luxurious houseboat, he has let himself drift for years, believing his way of life is unchangeable. But the tides of change are rolling in and he is in danger of being swept away.

I thought this was a fascinating book. Some of it was difficult to understand, I struggled with the dialect at times. But this just added to the feeling of being in another world. River of Smoke is the sequel to this book and I am looking forward to reading it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheljen

I first came across the Ballet Russes when reading Bloomsbury Ballerina by Judith Mackrell, a biography of the dancer Lydia Lopkova. I know nothing about ballet, but was captivated by the world described in the book. So when I saw this biography of the founder of the Ballet Russes I jumped at the chance to extend my knowledge.

Sergei Diaghilev was a man of immense talent and vision and energy. He lived life at breakneck speed, he lived for art and music and beauty. He loved and feuded with equal passion and he was a big man whose presence dominated a room. As a young man he admired and sought out the old guard of Russian cultural life and later he discovered and encouraged some of the brightest new talents.

He was born into a wealthy family who fell on hard times. Money, and the lack of it, was to be an issue for Diaghilev his whole life. He attended university in Moscow where he read widely and expanded his circle of friends. In an early example of the confidence in himself which would be vital to his career, he and his cousin decide on a whim to visit Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy at this time was the most famous and influential man in Russia, and Sergei and Dima just pitched up on his doorstep one day. Tolstoy kindly exchanged a few words with them and Diaghilev wrote a ten page letter to his stepmother about the visit, describing every last detail.

Diaghilev seems to have been a great networker.  He knew everyone, from Tchaikovsky to Oscar Wilde, but some of his closest collaborators, such as Leon Bakst, he had known since he was a young man. Pre-revolution he was close to political power, but less so after 1917 and eventually he was exiled from his beloved Russia.

Sjeng writes; In the course of a twenty-three-year career Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before (or has done since).

Around the time I read this book I watched the film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky about an affair that the two were rumoured to have had. I enjoyed it, it was beautiful to look at, if a little cold. The main pleasure for me was seeing some of the characters I was reading about portrayed on screen.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling

I've been looking forward to starting the Harry Potter series with Billy. I've read them myself and we've watched the films together, but he hasn't read the books. I think we're off to a good start with them - not a peep out of Billy while I was reading to him.

I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone around the time it first came out, and I'd forgotten what a 'children's' book it is compared to the later ones in the series. It's a boarding school adventure story (with magic), but so well done. The story is simpler than the later books and the characters are presented very straightforwardly.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number 4, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you'd expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn't hold with such nonsense.

There are a lot of things about Hogwarts which would appeal to a child - not least being away from their parents. Another is the food, from the chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans on the trolley on the Hogwarts Express, to Harry's first feast at the school.

Harry's mouth fell open. The dishes in front of him were now piled high with food. He had never seen so many things he liked on one table: roast beef, roast chicken, pork chops and lamb chops, sausages, bacon and steak, boiled potatoes, roast potatoes, chips, Yorkshire pudding, peas, carrots, gravy, ketchup and, for some strange reason, mint humbugs.

And any school child would recognise the way Harry has to negotiate his way amongst the other children. A bond is immediately struck with Ron, and his friendship with Hermione blossoms slowly. And he has to stand up for himself against his arch enemy Draco Malfoy.

I don't know if I'll get to read the whole series to Billy. He enjoys his bedtime story at the moment, but I suppose it won't be long before he thinks that being read to is babyish. Maybe I'll get as far as the Goblet of Fire.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Two For Sorrow by Nicola Upson

I was a bit disappointed with the last book in this series, so I was really hoping to enjoy this one. And I did - I thought it was great.
The heroine, Josephine Tey is back in London. She is researching a true crime novel about 'baby farmers'. These were women who would for a fee, take in unmarried pregnant women (the book is set at the beginning of the twentieth century), then when the baby was born they would pretend to get the baby adopted, but would in fact kill it. Josephine has a tenuous connection with one such case, a former teacher of hers was a prison warden in Holloway Jail when two baby farmers, Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters were executed. This former teacher, Celia Bannerman now works at the Cowdray Club, where Josephine stays when she is in London.
There is a particularly gruesome murder of an employee of Lettice and Ronnie, Josephine's good friends. This brings into the picture Archie Penrose, the policeman who Josephine has a close, but confused relationship with. The dead girl was a former prisoner at Holloway Jail, and it seems as if there might be a connection with the Cowdray Club.
There is a glamour to this book, and the first in the series which I felt was lacking in the second. The world of the theatre in which Josephine moves is exciting and Lettice and Ronnie in particular, as successful costumiers evoke the glitzy, glamourous life of the wealthy in the 1920s. This contrasts with the squalor of the crimes, and the poverty that was so close by.  I loved this book, and can't wait for the next one.

When we had the cold snap last week we went out with our cameras to try and get some good frosty pictures. My camera is just a little point and click one, so my method was to try and get as close up as possible.

 Billy borrowed his dad's camera and we walked through the churchyard down to the ecology park. The churchyard is a good place for spotting wildlife, we often see squirrels there. 

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Birthday books

It was my birthday last week and I did very well for books. From my friend Karyn I got The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. It is described in the blurb as 'the original and definitive account of the Pendle witch trials of 1612'. The account written up by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, has been modernised by historian Robert Poole, making it easier for a 21st century reader to follow. I don't know very much about the Pendle witches at all. I used to live in Preston in Lancashire, not far from where it all took place, but am very ignorant about it.
The second book to unwrap was from my husband Mark, who bought me John Forster's biography of Charles Dickens. It is a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, with extracts from the novels. The introduction is by Jane Smiley.

For my birthday treat we had a drive out to Saltburn. I love Saltburn, it's a old Victorian seaside town. Hemmed in by the cliffs it's too small to have expanded in the way towns such as Blackpool and Scarbrough have. It's a real gem.  We had our lunch in The Ship pub, where the smugglers used to drink centuries ago.
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Then we went to the Saltburn Bookshop, a second hand book shop that I haven't been into in years. I got a pretty good haul. I was determined to buy something by someone I'd never heard of, because I always go into a bookshop looking for title or authors that I recognise. I felt like being a bit more reckless! The book that fitted the bill was Tomorrow Will Come by E.M. Almedingen. The blurb says 'It is the story of a young girl's life in St Petersburg, from early childhood until her departure from Russia in 1922.' There is a quote from Storm Jameson (who, co-incidentally, was born in Whitby, the next town down the coast from Saltburn) who says that it is 'a remarkable book. The future will picture our age through books like this, and not through the official records. And this story has, as well as a rare clarity, charm and a spiritual and imaginative strength which is still rarer.'

I also picked up the second volume of The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning. The first volume is on my TBR shelf waiting to be read. The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley. I was reading about Huxley at A Work in Progress recently, so this book leapt out at me when I saw it on the shelf. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes has been on my TBR list for a while. Mrs Keppel and her Daughter by Diana Souhami. The daughter was of course Violet Trefusis and I love reading about Bloomsbury and all the people connected with it. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West. I've never read any West, but have been meaning to for some time.
On the way to the bookshop I popped into a charity shop and picked up a book containing two Miss Read stories. I loved Miss Read when I was younger and thought it might be time to revisit her.