Thursday, July 26, 2007

Best moustache-twirling

Booking Through Thursday

Well, after last week’s record-breaking number of responses (92 last time I checked–an all-time BTT record), I was tempted to use this week’s question to ask what you all thought about Harry Potter 7–but since a decent proportion of you weren’t going to be reading it at all, that seemed unfair. So instead . . .

Who’s the worst fictional villain you can think of? As in, the one you hate the most, find the most evil, are happiest to see defeated? Not the cardboard, two-dimensional variety, but the most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain? Not necessarily the most “evil,” so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author…oh, you know what I mean!

This is a difficult one to answer - there are so many candidates. A currently topical one is Voldemort. Then there are Dracula (Bram Stoker), Mr Hyde (Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Richard the Third (Shakespeare), Sauron (Lord of the Rings), Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) and Jack Torrance (The Shining).

Of these I think the most evil, the one I'd be happiest to see defeated it would have to be Hannibal Lecter, with Jack Torrance running a close second - or even a dead heat. I haven't actually read Silence of the Lambs, but Anthony Hopkins was at his most chilling as Hannibal. I have read The Shining and found Jack to be a scary, evil character but that was nothing to Jack Nicholson's performance in the film - even though I knew the story it really shocked me.

The most deliciously-written, most entertaining, best villain is probably Richard the Third - I think this is because of the RSC performance I saw at Stratford with Henry Goodman as Richard. He was the most believable hunchback and brought Shakespeare's words to life.

Not necessarily the most “evil,” so much as the best-conceived on the part of the author is again Richard the Third. Richard is a fascinating character and opinion is divided on whether he did really kill his nephews. Two books on this subject are The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey,a novel in which Grant, a policeman in hospital exercises his mind in reviewing the evidence; and The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir in which she studied the contemporary accounts as well as modern works and eventually concluding that Richard did murder the two princes.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Lancashire Landscape

Last weekend we went to stay with friends in Helmshore, Lancashire, just north of where we all grew up together in Cheshire. It was a long time since we'd got together, so there was a lot to catch up on. Lancashire is not just large industrial cities but also has some beautiful countryside, as these photos show.

The weather was fine last Saturday afternoon when we took Silka for a walk around Calf Hey Reservoir, one of several reservoirs near Helmshore, in the West Pennine Moors.

Moorland is now Open Access Land thanks to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, meaning you can walk anywhere, but we stuck to the footpaths.

From here we could see Ogden Reservoir on the right of Calf Hey.
Calf Hey Reservoir was constructed in 1854, flooding what was previously farmland. The remains of several buildings, dating from the 17th century are still there next to the reservoir. There were originally a number of cottages and a substantial house. By the 18th and 19th centuries the cottages were used for handloom weaving, which were gradually superseded by the powerlooms of Calf Hey Mill. The Bury and Radcliffe Waterworks Company, who owned the land, terminated the leases on the cottages and farms to prevent contamiantion of the water supply and the Mill closed. With no employment this led to the abandment of the village and farms between 1890 and 1920.

Sunday morning was also fine and sunny and we did a circular walk from our friends' house, walking alongside a stream for most of the way, then through the little village of Irwell Vale and back home.

The white blobs on the trees in the middle of the photo below are actually herons (we forgot to take the zoom lens).

It rained in the afternoon when we visited Clitheroe and Waddow Hall, where my friend and I had first camped with the Girl Guides when we were 11.

It hadn't changed much!

This is the weir at Waddow, still looking just as I remembered it.

On the way back we drove past Pendle Hill shrouded in mist, which reminded me of Robert Neill's Mist Over Pendle, a story of witchcraft in the 17th century. I found my copy when I came back home. "If a hill could have an indwelling Spirit, then surely this had one - and it might not be the friendliest of Spirits.There was some brooding quality about this hill, as though it were sentient and knew more than it chose to tell. ... This hill seemed different from other hills, as though it possessed something - or even, perhaps, as though something possessed it."

In the mist and rain last Sunday I could imagine how the hill drew people's imagination. The weather was too bad to take a photo, but this is from Wikipedia, showing the hill on a fine day.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Northern Lights

I'm in the middle of writing a post on our visit to Lancashire, but I must write about Northern Lights as I've just finished reading it.

I know many people are in the middle of Harry Potter fever and reading the lastest book and I will get to that next week, but in my opinion Philip Pullman puts J K Rowling into the shade. Northern Lights is the first book in his trilogy His Dark Materials and it is brilliant. I can't think why I've not read it before now. It is set in a universe similar to ours, but different. It begins in Oxford, ever so like our Oxford to tempt you into thinking it is our Oxford and moves from there into a different London and along the canals, with the "gyptians", eventually travelling to the far north, all so beautifully described that you are convinced of the reality of this universe. Lyra, the main character, is a real child drawn into terrible dangers, helped by Pantalaiman, her daemon, amongst armoured bears and witches. The book deals with many themes such as the relationship between the body and soul; the nature of friendship; loneliness; and the corruption of knowledge.

I can't wait to start the second book The Subtle Knife.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Booking through Thursday Just Wild About Harry

Booking Through Thursday's questions this week are:

Okay, love him or loathe him, you’d have to live under a rock not to know that J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, comes out on Saturday… Are you going to read it?
If so, right away? Or just, you know, eventually, when you get around to it? Are you attending any of the midnight parties?
If you’re not going to read it, why not?
And, for the record… what do you think? Will Harry survive the series? What are you most looking forward to?

I will read it, but not yet. I've read all the other books - when they came out in paperback for the first four books and then borrowed the others. I got a bit fed up with the Quidditch matches and the repetition. I quite enjoyed the films (I've seen two), but no, I'm not going to any midnight parties or queuing up to buy the book - I'm not that wild about Harry.

I hope Harry survives - but you never know.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mistress of the Art of Death

Once I started to read Mistress of the Art of Death I had to stop reading the others I had on the go, so that I could finish it. Then I was sorry that it was all over. So thank you Ann at Patternings for your recommendation. It’s one of those books that captures my imagination and makes me wish I was doing historical research and could write like Ariana Franklin does.

The book is a murder/mystery book set in Cambridge in 1170 during the reign of Henry II. A child has been murdered and others have disappeared (also found murdered). The Jews are suspected and have been held in the castle for their own safety. Henry is keen to find the culprit, as the Jewish community in Cambridge are major contributors to his exchequer. He enlists the help of investigators from his cousin, the King of Sicily to find the murderer. Thus Simon of Naples comes to England, accompanied by Adelia, a female doctor, who specialises in studying corpses, hence the title of the book. Running the risk of being accused of witchcraft, Adelia cannot openly carry out her investigations in England in the 12th century and has to pretend that Mansur, a Muslim eunuch (her bodyguard) is the doctor. Despite this, she manages to infiltrate into Cambridge life, making friends and finding romance as she does so, not to mention a dramatic episode when her own life is in danger.

This brief description makes the books sound trite, when it is anything but. I loved the start, which is reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, with sketches of the pilgrims returning to Cambridge from Canterbury – nuns, knights with their squires, a tax collector, a merchant and his wife, a minstrel and a prior and three monks, plus the investigators from Sicily.

"Here they come. From down the road we can hear harness jingling and can see
dust rising into the warm spring sky. Pilgrims returning after Easter in
Canterbury. Tokens of the mitred, martyred St Thomas are pinned to cloaks and
hats - the Canterbury monks must be raking it in."

Medieval life is vividly brought to life. There are accounts of medical practices and treatments, using reeds as a catheter as one example and of the post mortems of the murdered children carried out in the primitive conditions in medieval England; plus wonderful descriptions of the everyday life of the townspeople, the nuns and the aristocracy. Add to this, details of the religious conflict between Jews and Christians (and also the crusades) and the question of who has murdered the children and why.

All in all, I was enthralled throughout the book and can’t wait to read another one by Ariana Franklin. I see on Amazon that she has also written City of Shadows, a murder mystery set in Berlin in 1922.
I took the Book Quiz and it turns out that I'm -

You're Watership Down!

by Richard Adams

Though many think of you as a bit young, even childish, you're
actually incredibly deep and complex. You show people the need to rethink their
assumptions, and confront them on everything from how they think to where they
build their houses. You might be one of the greatest people of all time. You'd
be recognized as such if you weren't always talking about talking rabbits.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

No I don't talk about rabbits - cats now, that's more like it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Connections - Huckleberry Finn and Angle of Repose

D is currently reading Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Maybe I can persuade him to write about it when he's finished it. In the meantime he keeps telling me bits - I've not read it yet - and looking on Google Earth at the Mississippi. This morning I learnt that Huck and Jim who are looking for Cairo have just got up to where the old Muddy meets the clear water of the Ohio River and lo and behold we could see that clearly on Google Earth. I didn't know there's a Cairo in the USA. Huckleberry Finn is a good follow up to Wilberforce (D and I both read that for the Book Group - see my earlier post) as Jim is a runaway slave, making for freedom in the northern states.

I'm reading Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose in the mornings (when D reads Huck) and have come across references to Huckleberry Finn in that. Stegner's book is based directly on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, fictionalised as Susan Burling Ward. Susan contributed to the Century magazine in the same issue of February 1885 which contained the final installment of The Aventures of Huckleberry Finn. This morning whilst D was reading about Huck reaching the Ohio River I was reading about Susan meeting and talking to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who was the principal speaker in honour of General Ulysses Grant at a banquet in Chicago.

I think I read about the Stegner book on a blog, but didn't note which blog. So, thank you to whoever it was - I am enjoying this book.

Friday, July 06, 2007


I am a Bookaholic and that's official, see the link on the lefthand side, somewhere lower down the page. Of course, I've always been a book addict, but I've only just come across this BlogRing thanks to Dovegreyreader's blog.

The picture above shows the covers of some books I've just bought or borrowed. We had another visit to our son last weekend, celebrating D's birthday and came away with three books (two are borrowed) - Ulysses and the English Patient. I've read Joyce's A Portrait of an Artist As a Young Man, but have been a bit put off reading Ulysses by its reputation, but now is the time to give it a go. As for the English Patient I've seen and enjoyed the film. I usually find it's better for me to read a book after seeing the film of it, rather than the other way round, so I hope to enjoy the book too. The third book that came home with me is Fictions, by Jorge Luis Borges. The first story is "The Garden of Forking Paths", which I first read a few years ago and remember that it was a curious tale. The foreword says that the others are tales of fantasy, including an astonishing account of a man who can forget nothing (so it says on the back cover).

I've at last ventured into the secondhand books on Amazon and was really pleased to find Elizabeth Jane Howard's memoir Slipstream for 1p (she wrote the Cazalet Chronicles amongst other books) and The Sex Life of My Aunt, by Mavis Cheek for 33p. Cheek is a new author to me. Elizabeth Buchan says she is "Funny, clever Mavis Cheek ... writing with her trademark aplomb and heart-topping energy." So it should be entertaining. The Jigsaw Maker, by Adrienne Dines is appealing because of the title and also its promise of a story of a settled life falling into pieces and the scramble to put it back together. This was a bit dearer at 90p. They're all in really good condition and came by second class post really quickly.

The other two books are also bargains, this time from newbooks magazine. These are Wild Mary, a biography of yet another author, Mary Wesley; and The Brief History of the Dead, which sounds intriguing, described on the back cover as "a place between heaven and earth. A city where everyone ends up after they die."

Finally, I shall be testing this book to see if it can live up to its promise. I'm a complete ignoramus as far as HTML goes and it'll have to be very clearly explained for me to learn "all the essential know-how" to "create simple to advanced HTML documents". I can't believe it can be that simple and easy.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Winning Bookmark

E also gave her Grandad this bookmark she made, illustrating the story of Noah's Ark.

It is the winning design in the Church Membership Bookmark 2007 Competition.

Beautiful Paintings

It was D's birthday last Saturday and the grandchildren painted some beautiful pictures to give him.

This is by E age 6 - smiley spiders and pretty flying things.

The one below by G age 5. He likes football (as does his Dad and Grandad) - no.8 is Wayne Rooney (although my footballing experts tell me he'll be no. 10 next season).

And this sparkly one by M age 18 months.

These photos don't really do them justice, in particular the colours in M's painting look a bit pale but in reality it's really lovely.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

June Books

I finished reading seven books this month. I’ve already written about Jenny Diski’s On Trying To Keep Still here, John Pollock’s Wilberforce here and Anne Tyler’s Digging To America here. The other books -

  • Death’s Jest-Book – Reginald Hill

  • The Poe Shadow – Matthew Pearl

  • King of the Streets – John Baker

  • Theft – Peter Carey

all deal with crime and death. It seems that murder has become somewhat of a theme in my reading, especially as the next book I'm reading is Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, a fascinating novel set in 12th century England concerning the investigation into the death of three children in Cambridge by a Adelia, a doctor from Salerno – more in a later post on this one.

However it may look, I don’t have a reading plan at all and pick up a book as it appeals to me. So, I am surprised to find connections between the books, even when it seems that they are widely different. For example, The Poe Shadow contains many references to slavery, one of the main topics in the Wilberforce biography and is set mainly in Baltimore, as is Digging To America, although more than a century later. The Poe Shadow is a long novel about the mysterious circumstances surrounding Edgar Allan Poe’s death in 1849. It is based on authentic details, combined with the results of research in various archives and libraries. It uses historical figures as well as fictional characters in the search to explain how Poe died in a hospital in Baltimore, after being found in an inn, dressed in dirty, shabby clothes. His visit to Baltimore was unexplained and over the years numerous theories have been put forward to explain how he died. The novel also explores who was the real “Dupin” of Poe’s mystery tales. Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination was on my parents’ bookshelves and I dipped into them as a teenager. I’ve now dug out a copy and have started to read The Murders in the Rue Morgue, featuring Dupin. I was surprised that the opening of this tale is a detailed analysis of analysis, using as comparison the games of draughts, chess and whist.

I have always found Poe fascinating and previously read The American Boy by Andrew Taylor, a novel about Poe's childhood. The Poe Society has much more information on him.

Murder is of course a staple subject of the detective story, and Reginald Hill and John Baker are both experts in the field. Reginald Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book and John Baker’s King of the Streets cover violent murders in graphic detail, some of which I found hard to stomach, but as one of the characters in the Mistress of the Art of Death says: “To ignore his [ie man’s] capacity for evil is as obtuse as blinding oneself to the height to which he can soar.”

I read Hill’s Death’s Jest-Book quickly, even given that I had to look up the meaning of several words and the long, rambling letters from Roote, an ex-convict, which troubled Pascoe so much that he became obsessed with finding Roote guilty again. There are a number of sub-plots running through this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, particularly exploring the psychology of the criminal mind.

Baker’s King of the Streets is also a quick read, although the subject matter of the abuse and murder of children is neither easy nor pleasant to contemplate. This is the third book I’ve read by Baker, all featuring the private detective, Sam Turner and his assistant Geordie (na├»ve, but street-wise). It’s well written, giving insight into the minds of both the detective and the criminal characters. I particularly liked the nickname “Gog” for one of the “minders”, who trashes Sam’s office. Gog is, as the name suggests, a huge giant of a man, with little reasoning power, but plenty of brawn, looked after (not very successfully) by his brother, Ben. Gog and Magog, hills near Cambridge, crop again in Franklin’s book, “British giants as pagan as their name”. Baker also refers to Gulliver’s Travels in describing Gog as “Brobdingnagian”. All, very appropriate.

Theft, by Peter Carey, ends this month’s list of books. This is a very different book from the others, but is still on the theme of crime, although the sub-title is “A Love Story”, which it is as well. This time it is in the art world, with forgeries and details of the international art scene. The book ranges from Australia to Japan and America, split between alternating accounts from the two Boone brothers, Michael the artist, and Hugh his “Broken” brother, who he is “looking after”. Another shared theme in the King of the Streets and Theft, is that both books feature brothers, one of whom is ‘damaged’ and cared for by the other. Hugh’s sections of the books counter-balance Michael’s, giving additional insight into the action of the book. I found it hard to read in parts, not knowing anything of the technicalities of the art world, but feel I’ve learned quite a lot. This is only the second book by Carey that I’ve read, and whilst I prefer Oscar and Lucinda I think Theft is still worth reading.