Friday 30 January 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

"I must try to be happier, I told myself. For the sake of the hawk I must."

I love the cover of this book. I noticed it immediately on the display stand in the library. I have also recently read a glowing review of it. So despite my New Year's resolution to bring fewer into the house and read more from the TBR - I checked it out of the library and brought it home.

I enjoyed reading it very much. It is a memoir about recovery from loss; Helen Macdonald's father dies suddenly and she is absolutely grief stricken. I loved the tone of it, it is not at all maudlin or self pitying - just honest. Helen is almost unhinged by her loss and she makes the seemingly rash decision to buy and train a goshawk. She has some experience because she's worked in a falconry centre in the past and it's always been a fascination of hers. On the other hand she's not thinking clearly because she's so sad, her job is about to come to an end leaving her without a regular income, and she will have to move house.

She buys the goshawk, who is called Mabel, and sets about training her. Birds of prey seem to be quite solitary creatures and I wondered if that was the attraction. Grief can be quite isolating, perhaps it was comforting to spend time with another creature who is alone.

One of the books she read about falconry when she was young was The Goshawk by TE White. H is for Hawk is interspersed with quotes from this book and Helen Macdonald's observations about White. He was a very troubled man, and it was interesting to compare his experiences with Helen's.

She flies Mabel on farmland near her home. There is some lovely writing about this. Gazing at a hill in the distance:

I feel I might be up there, because now the hill is home. I know it intimately. Every hedgerow, every track through dry grass where the hares cut across field-boundaries, each discarded piece of rusted machinery, every earth and warren and tree. By the road, half an acre of fenced-off mud, scaled with tyre tracks and water reflecting pieces of sky. Wagtails, pallets, tractors, a broken silo on its side like a fallen rocket stage. Here is the sheep field, there is the clover ley, now mown and turned to earth. Further up the track are tracts of mugwort: dead now from frost, seeds clinging to stems and branches like a billion musty beads on ragged Christmas trees. Piles of bricks and rubble run along the left-hand side of the track, and the earth between them is soft and full of rabbits. Further up the hill the hedges are higher, and by the time I get to the top the track has narrowed into grass. Cow parsley. Knapweed. Wild burdock. The argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fire clay. Drifts of chalk beneath. Yellowhammers chipping hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea.

Mabel is good for Helen. She needs taking care of so that gives Helen a reason to be up in the morning. She needs to be exercised so that gets them both out of the house. And because Helen needs advice about Mabel she has to interact with people even when she feels like locking herself away. Gradually things get better for her and the initial intensity of her grief begins to lessen.

This is a lovely book, I think it is one I will return to.

Saturday 17 January 2015

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

I think I picked the wrong time of year to read this novel. It's a chunky book with lots of characters and a plot the reader has to concentrate on. I started it in Christmas week when my brain was all over the place and I don't feel that I ever really got to grips with the story.

I would like to give it another go, at a time when I can concentrate on it more, because I think I would really love it. It's just the kind of story I enjoy. It's set in New Zealand in the 19th century during the gold rush there. I didn't even realise that there had been a gold rush in New Zealand, so basically all the history was new to me.

Walter Moody is newly arrived from England, with the intention of making his fortune on the goldfields. Exhausted and traumatised after his harrowing voyage he enters the smoking room of his hotel to relax and calm himself. There are other men in the room, all seemingly engrossed in their own pursuits, but Walter comes to realise that they all know each other and he has inadvertently interrupted a secret meeting.

They confide in him that they have come together to discuss the disappearance of a wealthy prospector and the attempted suicide of one of the town's prostitutes. There is also the puzzling matter of the fortune which has been found in the home of a man they all believed to be a drunk and a loser.

Each of the twelve men knows part of the story, and the book pulls their tales together. Some stories shed light on events and others cast shadows. It's not until all the stories are told that the solution emerges. I should've read it with a paper and pen beside me so that I could keep everyone straight in my head.

I know that this book has been very popular, and I'd love to know what others opinions are. Am I right in thinking it's worth another read?

Saturday 10 January 2015

Capital by John Lanchester

This novel is a snapshot of London around the time of the financial meltdown. The characters are all connected by the fact they live and work in Pepys Road, a Victorian residential street. Pepys Road has seen many social changes over the years, and in 2007 it was a desirable place to live, and you would have to be wealthy to buy there. Wealthy like Roger and Arabella, but Roger, a banker, desperately needs his bonus to be a big one to keep the the lifestyle they aspire to. When it isn't, things start to unravel. Petunia has lived in her house on Pepys Road all her life (apart from when she was evacuated during the War). Her daughter has moved out of London and Petunia's health is failing. Zbigniew is a builder from Poland who often works for residents of Pepys Road as they endlessly remodel their houses. He doesn't intend to remain in London, but to earn enough money to return to Poland and set up a business with his father. There are other characters, all of whose lives bring them into contact with Pepys Road.
Postcards start arriving at every house on the road, postcard which read 'We Want What You've Got'. At first residents assume that it is advertising from an estate agent, but the postcards keep coming and gradually become more sinister.
A snapshot of life in London is the best way to describe this book All the characters have their own stories going in, stories which don't have anything to do with the other characters. Lanchester uses them to examine the issues which many people are concerned about; the integrity of our financial systems, immigration, the fear of terrorism. He does it in a fantastically easy to read way. I enjoyed it and look forward to reading more by him.


Thursday 1 January 2015

Books for 2015

Every year I choose six books to re-read, and twelve books from my TBR shelves to read over the coming year. This year the choices are:

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Manly Pursuits by Ann Harries
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold
Air and Fire by Rupert Thomson

TBR shelf reads
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
Cinema Lumiere by Hattie Holden Edmonds
The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton
The Great Fortune by Olivia Manning
White Corridor by Christopher Fowler
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle
The American Boy by Andrew Taylor
Settled Blood by Mari Hannah
The Convictions of John Delahunt by Andrew Hughes
The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne

I am determined to be a more conscientious blogger in 2015 - I was horrified to realise that I haven't blogged since March. It's been a busy year! I haven't been very good about reading other people's blogs either, and I've missed it. So I'll make time for both things.

Saturday 22 March 2014

Reading for Spring

I am signing up to do the Once Upon a Time challenge hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel DroppingsThe themes for the challenge are fantasy, folklore, fairytale and mythology. I've had in mind the books I want to read for some time, and they are as follows;

Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare
Described an 'urban fantasy full of vampires, werewolves and shape-shifters' it is set in London in 1878. It's the first book in The Infernal Devices series.

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffin
This is another first book in a series (the Matthew Swift novels) and is again set in London. 'Enter a London where magicians ride the Last Train, implore favours of the Beggar King and interpret the insane wisdom of The Bag Lady'.

Broken Homes by Ben Aaronovitch
This is more of a known quantity because it is the fourth in the series and I loved the other three. A police procedural, the hero is PC Peter Grant an apprentice wizard who works for the Metropolitan Police. (London again, I didn't realise how London-centric the list was until I've started typing it out).

Any Other Name by Emma Newman
The second in the Split Worlds trilogy. I've actually had this on my shelf for ages, but I was waiting for Once Upon a Time to read it. The blurb says 'It's Downton Abbey with magic, in Bath's secret mirror city'. That sounds impossible to resist.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
This is a re-read. I loved it when I previously read it and am hoping it's as good as I remember.

That's my list, and I'm looking forward to getting started.

Saturday 15 March 2014

Wedlock by Wendy Moore

This is the story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, born in 1789, the attractive, educated and pampered only child of an extremely wealthy County Durham coal magnate. Her father died when she was a child and she almost immediately became a target for fortune hunters. In Georgian Britain rich people did not often marry for love, and this was the case with Mary Eleanor. Her first marriage, to the Earl of Strathmore, wasn't happy, but fairly brief; he died after they had been married for eight years. But it was idyllic compared to what happened next.

Andrew Robinson Stoney was an Irish soldier. He was handsome, charming, and extremely manipulative. He had already been married and the gossip was that he had driven his first wife to her grave by his ill-treatment. Unbelievably he tricked Mary Eleanor into marrying him by pretending that he was dying. Once they were wed he made a miraculous recovery. Mary Eleanor's life from then until the end of her marriage was a living hell.

After her marriage she no longer had any rights over her own money and Stoney kept her almost penniless. He was physically and emotionally abusive. He kept her from seeing her mother and her friends, she was often a prisoner in her own home. She was rarely given enough to eat and became thin and gaunt. She was a clever woman and had a keen interest in botany and science but Stoney prevented her from pursuing those interests.

This is all shocking enough, but what amazed me the most was that there seemed to be nothing she could do to save herself. Plenty of people knew what was going on but nobody stepped in to help her. Stoney was a master of disinformation and he let it be known that Mary Eleanor was irrational - almost deranged - and people believed him. When help finally did come it wasn't from anyone in her own social class, but her servants who rescued her. Those with the most to lose risked everything, while those with the power stood and watched.

I thought this was a fascinating and horrifying book. Domestic abuse still happens today of course, and women still stay with abusive men, through fear, or being so beaten down that they can't see a way out. But at least it's a subject that's talked about, and there are laws to protect women, and refuges for them to go to. Mary Eleanor had none of that. Though she attained a measure of peace in her later years, because of Andrew Stoney Robinson the happy life she could've had and the good she could've done in the world through her patronage of scientific endeavours never happened.

(Incidentally, Mary Eleanor's grandson John and his wife Josephine founded the Bowes Museum, which I wrote about here.)

Saturday 8 March 2014

Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley

Running is something that I liked as a child. I am one of that strange breed who actually enjoyed cross-country at school. But running (in fact all sport) stopped when I left school. I can't say that I've particularly missed it. On the other hand I am quite often tired these days and have got significantly heavier over the past few years. Lack of exercise has got a lot to do with that. My son joined our local running club a couple of years ago and that stirred in me some long-forgotten urge to run. But only enough to make a couple of half-hearted attempts and then give up. Then I heard about this book and ordered it from the library. I started it straightaway and finished it in about two days.

Alexandra Heminsley is a journalist who hadn't done any sport for years and didn't think of herself as an athletic person at all. But she decided that she wanted to run.

That was it, I was going to run round the block. I had high hopes: hopes of the arse of an athlete, the waist of a supermodel and the speed of a gazelle. Defeated by gyms, bored by sanctimonious yoga teachers and intimidated by glossy tennis clubs, I decided it was time to end a lifetime spent believing myself to exist on the outside of sport. I would return powerful and proud, the city still reeling at the sight of my grace and speed on the pavements of Kilburn.

Suffice to say it didn't turn out as she planned. But she didn't give up and by sheer tenacity and perseverance turned herself into a runner.

It's very funny, there's plenty of stuff like the paragraph quoted above. She doesn't mind laughing at herself (she fell down while trying to high-five spectators at her first marathon), and she is honest about her setbacks as well as her successes. It is also quite moving, she writes about how running helped her reconnect  with her father with whom she'd had a loving, but quite distant relationship. He had been a keen runner and it gave them a shared interest and something to talk about.

There's lots of practical advice as well; about kit, injuries, what to take to a race. All in all I think it's an ideal book for women who think they might like to run. I found it very inspiring and am running again. Very slowly, and not in daylight - but it's a start.