Thursday, January 31, 2008

Quirky - Booking Through Thursday

This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:

Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

I take “quirky” to mean characters that are odd, who act in unexpected ways, are a bit peculiar or different, maybe a bit outrageous or unusual in some way. They’re the type of character that makes a book either very good or boringly bad. It really depends on the situation and whether they fit into the story or are there just for effect.

There are so many characters that can be described as quirky but one that came to my mind as I read the question is Alice in Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth. She is certainly eccentric and peculiar, nothing she does is what people expect of her. The book starts off: “The madwoman in the attic was standing at the window.”

Her neighbours think she is simple, strange and definitely mad and are outraged by what she says and does. It’s a bizarre story mainly seen through Alice’s mind which because she lives mainly in the world of books is a very strange place indeed. It’s funny, well ludicrous at times, full of literary and musical references and I got lost in it for hours.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Winter In Madrid by C. J. Sansom

The devastation, desolation and waste of war had me in tears as I was reading Winter In Madrid. I already knew from reading his 16th century crime thrillers that C. J. Sansom is a master storyteller and this book exceeded my expectations. It is an action packed thrilling war/spy story and also a moving love story and historical drama all rolled into this tense and gripping novel.

Sansom vividly conveys the horror and fear of the realities of life in Spain during the Spanish Civil War and the first two years of the Second World War. The opening chapter dramatically sets the tone for the book with the brutality of the Battle of Jarama in 1937 then leaps straight into the bombing of London in 1940. Then Harry Brett, traumatised by his injuries at Dunkirk is sent to Spain to spy for the British Secret Service. He is plunged into the terrible living conditions in Madrid where people are starving, children are left homeless to fend for themselves and wild dogs roam the rubble of bombed houses.

“He turned into a square. Two sides had been shelled into rubble, all the houses down, a chaos of broken walls rising from a sea of shattered bricks and sodden rags of bedding. Weeds had grown up between the stones, tall scabrous dark-green things. Square holes in the ground half filled with green scummy water marked where cellars had stood. The square was deserted and the houses that had been left standing looking derelict, their windows all broken.

Harry had never seen such destruction on such a scale; the bombsites in London were small by comparison. He stepped closer, looking over the devastation. The square must have been intensively shelled. Everyday there was news of more raids on London – did England look like this now?”

The question is will Franco maintain Spain’s neutrality and enter the war in support of Hitler? Harry’s cover is as an interpreter, whilst his mission is to make contact with Sandy Forsyth, who he had known at public school in England, gain his confidence and discover the truth behind the rumour that gold deposits have been discovered in Spain, which would boost the economy making Spain less reliant on British support. Harry, a reluctant spy, soon finds himself in danger. He is plagued by memories of another school friend Bernie Piper, an ardent Communist who had enlisted in the International Brigades and had disappeared, reported killed at the Battle of Jarama. Barbara, an ex- Red Cross nurse, now Sandy’s girlfriend and Bernie’s former lover is convinced Bernie was not killed She appeals to Harry for help in finding Bernie, and so the story moves to its climax.

This is a long and detailed book, but it moves along rapidly, with believable characters, including the bullying Ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, Alan Hillgarth, the chief of intelligence (both of whom are real historical figures), diplomats, Spanish Monarchists and Falangists and the ordinary Spanish people. Franco’s Madrid is shown as a place where fear, poverty and corruption stalk the streets; where hatred and suffering are paramount. It’s a chilling picture, but Harry finds love too when he meets Sofia and plans her escape with him to England after he has completed his mission.

With its haunting themes of corruption, murder, the power of authority and heroism Winter In Madrid captivated my imagination. I expect it will be made into a film but I don’t think I could bear to watch it after enjoying this book so much.

Note: This book qualifies for the following Challenges – From the Stacks (I've had it unread for months), the Chunkster Challenge (it's 530 pages) and What’s In a Name?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bear With Me

Normal book posts will be resumed as soon as possible.

In the meantime the bears have been clamouring for a mention. This is Little Big Ted and he is the first miniature bear that I bought, so he's my favourite. I found him at a Bear Fair at Woburn Abbey and he's seen the Queen. His arms and legs snap off (press studs) and his maker popped him in his shirt pocket and took him to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen (I can't remember why).

This started me off collecting miniature bears ever since. Some of them are Steiff bears but others are just plain little bears and they're all welcome here. There are specialist shops and museums where they can be found.

Some of them like to sit on the bookshelves.

That is when they don't get together with the others, including a few bigger bears.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Where was Agnes Born?

Family history has taken up so much of my time recently. It’s amazing how much you can find out without leaving home and there are so many websites that it’s bewildering at first. Be warned if you’re thinking of looking up your family history, it has taken me hours of staring at lists of people in the various indexes assessing if and how they fit in to the family tree. It has seriously distracted me from reading and from writing this blog!

I started with my husband’s family as my sister has already done a lot of research on our side of the family. It has been surprising. I have not got very far with his mother’s side of the family. We knew the names of his mother’s parents (his grandparents) and easily found the details of their parents (his great grandparents) from birth certificates. I have been looking at the Census Returns through which has name indexes to the Returns and record sheets for each person.

Here is the surprise: his great grandmother is recorded in both the 1881 and 1891 Census Returns, giving her place of birth as America and in the record sheet for the 1891 Census it gives her place of birth as American Samoa. I can’t see anything on the actual Census Returns at all that indicates Samoa, so where has that information come from? I’ve emailed Ancestry and so far haven’t heard back. I don’t know where to find any more information – looking at the indexes it seems as though you have to know in which state a person was born before you can check their details. I cannot find their marriage in the Marriage Index for 1837 – 1983 so it seems like a dead end. Her maiden name is on her daughter’s birth certificate in 1878 as Agnes Henderson when the family was living in Chorlton, Manchester. She was born about 1850 or 1851 going off her age as stated in the Census Returns.

Photograph of American Samoa from Wikipedia Engraving of view of Manchester (Cottonopolis) from Wikipedia

It is difficult to find out when Agnes came to England and when and where she was married. If she was from American Samoa she must have found Manchester in the 1880s very different. There are some records of immigrants in the National Archives, but it may be like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Celebrate the Author Challenge - Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born on 25 January 1882. She was the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen and the wife of Leonard Woolf. Fearing that she was going mad, she weighed her pocket down with a large stone and drowned herself in the River Ouse on 28 March 1941.

She wrote many books, works of non-fiction as well as novels, short stories and essays. I’ve only read a few – Mrs Dalloway, To The Lighthouse, Kew Gardens (a short story), Flush: a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog, and A Room of One’s Own and The Three Guineas (in one volume).

For this Challenge I decided to read The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, a book I bought in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago and have never read. This was originally published in 1942 by Leonard Woolf. Virginia had been getting together essays, which she proposed to publish in the autumn of 1941, or the spring of 1942. She had left behind her many essays, sketches and short stories, some of which had been previously published in newspapers, which he decided were worth republishing and in this book he also included some of those previously unpublished. In an Editorial Note he wrote that the first four essays “were written by her, as usual in handwriting and were then typed out in rather a rough state. I have printed them as they stand, except that I have punctuated them and corrected obvious verbal mistakes. I have not hesitated to do this, since I always revised the MSS. Of her books and articles in this way before they were published.”

I am reading these essays very slowly, just one or two a day, letting them sink into my mind as I eat my breakfast. The Death of the Moth is one of the previously unpublished essays. It is very short – just over 3 pages long. So much meaning is packed into these three pages. It is a meditation on the nature of life and death seen through the perspective of a moth. It flies by day, fluttering from side to side of a window pane.

“He was little or nothing but life. ... there was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him. It was as if someone had taken a tiny bead of pure life and decking it as lightly as possible with down and feathers, had set it dancing and zigzagging to show us the true nature of life.”

As the day progresses the moth tires and falls on his back. He struggles vainly to raise himself. She watches, realising that it is useless to try to do anything to help and ponders the power of death over life: “As I looked at the dead moth, this minute wayside triumph of so great a force over so mean an antagonist filled me with wonder.”

The essays I’ve read so far have a melancholy, sombre tone, considering the nature of the self in Evening Over Sussex, beautiful Sussex facing the sea with its “mottled and marbled” fields, and the poignancy of death in Three Pictures and Old Mrs Grey.

Street Haunting: a London Adventure is lighter in mood telling of the pleasures of rambling through the London streets, watching other people and visiting a second-hand bookshop. This description expresses so well the pleasure of browsing among second-hand books:

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books: they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub shoulders against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

Also on a more cheerful note is ‘Twelfth Night’ at the Old Vic (written in 1933), discussing the differences between reading Shakespeare and watching his plays acted on the stage. This seemed so timely to me as I’ve been bemoaning various TV productions of adaptations of books that I have loved reading.

Virginia Woolf expresses it so much better than I ever could. Not only is the scenery upsetting:

“The actual persons of Malvolio, Sir Toby, Olivia and the rest expand our visionary characters out of all recognition. At first we are inclined to resent it. You are not Malvolio; or Sir Toby either, we want to tell them; but merely impostors. We sit gaping at the ruins of the play, at the travesty of the play. And then by degrees this same body or rather all the bodies together, take our play and remodel it between them. The play gains immensely in robustness, in solidity. The printed word is changed out of all recognition when it is heard by other people. “

She continues to discuss how we begin then to criticise the actors’ performances and compare their versions unfavourably with our own. Still the performance has made us read the play again and whetted our appetite for other performances that are still to come. I felt the same when I saw Twelfth Night last year in Stratford. As I described here the RSC's performance was not how I read the play. But I think I enjoy the performance of a play more than an adaptation of a book. As Virginia Woolf wrote Shakespeare was writing for the stage. Novels however, are meant to be read and that is why I think I have difficulty accepting a filmed version.

On Wednesday I went to see the film “The Golden Compass” and reacted mostly as she described in this essay. I thought the setting was good, the acting was fine, but yes Lyra was not my Lyra, Lord Asriel was not my Lord Asriel and so on through all the characters, although Ian McKellen was just right as the voice of Iorek. At the end of the film I felt a sense of anti-climax. The Golden Compass only covers the first of Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials and there is so much more in the books than is in the film.

Yet to come in this collection are essays on Henry James, E M Forster, the Art of Biography, Why?, Professions for Women and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. I’m not going to rush reading these, but intend to savour every one.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Huh? - Booking Through Thursday

What’s your favorite book that nobody else has heard of? You know, not Little Women or Huckleberry Finn, not the latest best-seller . . . whether they’ve read them or not, everybody “knows” those books. I’m talking about the best book that, when you tell people that you love it, they go, “Huh? Never heard of it?”

Oh dear, my mind went blank when I read this question. My favourite book - which one is that? And one that other people haven't heard of? I tend not to talk about books much to anyone these days apart from my family and people at the book groups I go to and talking to these people we usually find out about books the others haven't heard of. Reading blogs I come across so many books that I haven't heard of too, so maybe other people haven't heard of the ones I like.

Trying to think what is my favourite book I looked at my catalogue on LibraryThing. I liked The Poisonwood Bible - 6,578 other people own that book - so not unknown. How about Things Fall Apart? No, 3,805 others have that. So on and so forth.

I think I've mentioned Melvyn Bragg's book A Son of War before, but that is one book I liked that not many other people on LibraryThing own (41 others). The Man Who Listens by Taylor Caldwell is another - only one other person has that in their catalogue. How about Lambs of God by Marele Day (75 others have it) or Winter in the Hills by John Wain (10 others)? I liked these too, but I'm not sure they're my favourites.

There is poetry. No one that I've talked to has heard of Jack Mapanje or his books Of Chameleons and Gods (4 others on LT) and The Chattering Wagtails of Mikuyu Prison (1 other person). I don't read a lot of poetry, but I was really taken with these, maybe because I first heard them read by Jack when I was at a Summer School for an Open University course on English Literature. Jack was imprisoned in Malawi from September 1987 to May 1991, detained without charge or trial. Hearing him tell of his experiences was so moving.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Books, Books and yet more Books

When I started this blog I thought I’d write about the books I’d read as a reminder. So often, I’ve stood in a bookshop or library looking at books and thinking, “have I read that book, or have I got it already – it looks very familiar”? Sometimes, I’ve borrowed(or even bought) a book and got it home only to find another unread copy sitting in a pile, or on a shelf, or even worse find out I’ve already read it. So I also keep a notebook where I write titles of books I’d like to read and a note of where I heard about the book. But it’s not foolproof.

Today, I went to the library and saw “Author, Author” by David Lodge on the books for sale trolley. That’s a book I know someone on one of the blogs I read wrote about some time ago and I thought sounded worth reading. I remember looking for a copy, but I’m sorry whoever you were I didn’t write it down in my notebook. Anyway, I bought it for the grand sum of 10p – a bargain, indeed and thank you fellow blogger, it promises to be an interesting novel. It’s set in London in the 1880s and is a fictionalised story of Henry James. In the preface David Lodge writes:

“Nearly everything in this story is based on factual sources. With one insignificant exception, all the named characters were real people. Quotations from their books, plays, articles, letters, journals, etc., are their own words. But I have used a novelist’s licence in representing what they thought, felt and said to each other; and I have imagined some events and personal details which history omitted to record. So this book is a novel, and structured like a novel.”

I know what to expect and I think some biographers could benefit from making such a statement, as sometimes I’ve read in a supposedly factual accounts phrases like “must have thought”, “possibly”, and “would have”, making sweeping assumptions about a person’s state of mind, or knowledge.

I also intended to write about each book I read, if not in detail at least a short note on what I thought about it. In December I read a number of books very quickly in the run up to Christmas and New Year and never made any notes as I read. Now when I look back I realise I can not actually write very much about them without re-reading them and much as I enjoyed reading them the first time it’s too soon for re-reads and two of them are library books that have to go back soon (I can’t keep on renewing them).

So, here are the books I read in December that I’ve not written about:

Four Stories by Alan Bennett

I do like Alan Bennett’s books. I can hear him speak as I read. These are long short stories, which I think I prefer to the really short short stories. In the first story ‘The Laying on of Hands’, about the funeral service of Clive, a masseur to the famous, the congregation is made up of numerous celebrities and others who had known Clive. The service didn’t go as Father Jolliffe had planned, although he hadn’t decided what exactly he was going say about Clive, until he started to speak. Then he found himself throwing it open to the floor and the true circumstances of Clive’s death emerged.

My favourite story is ‘The Lady in the Van’; the true story of Miss Shepherd who lived in her van in Alan Bennett’s front garden. A sympathetic and amusing account of an eccentric old lady.

Solstice by Joyce Carol Oates

I didn’t enjoy this as much as some of the other books by Joyce Carol Oates that I’ve read. I think it’s because I didn’t really like either of the two main characters and got rather irritated by them. It’s beautifully written, so I did finish it. It’s about Monica who arrives to teach at a boys’ school in Pennsylvania after the break-up of her marriage and Sheila, an artist who is rather a recluse, eccentric, and unpredictable. Sheila just breezes into Monica’s life, with disastrous effect.

My Cleaner by Maggie Gee

Again, I didn’t get on with the two main characters in this book, but this didn't prevent me from enjoying this book. Vanessa, white, middle-class and totally self-absorbed asks Mary, black, and equally selfish, to return from Uganda to help look after Justin, Vanessa’s 22 year old son. Mary had worked as Vanessa’s cleaner 10 years earlier, but their relationship has changed and the balance of power between the two women shifts as the story reaches its climax. This is the first book by Maggie Gee that I’ve read and I would like to read more.

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

I’ll write about this in more detail. For now I’ll just say that this is one of the best books I’ve read recently. I always like books about Arthur and Merlin and this more than lived up to my expectations. Thanks Table Talk for introducing me to this book. It has most of the things I look for – believable characters, a riveting plot and well written.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam

This was a good find from the library. It’s funny, warm and tells the story of a retired QC. I became very fond of him. I think I will re-read this before returning it to the library and write about it properly.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Family History

Some years ago I worked in a County Record Office – not music, but archives - and a large percentage of the people who came in to do research were looking up their ancestors. I was not really too interested at the time as these records only related to that particular county and my ancestors hadn’t lived there. It was a fascinating job, I liked helping people to find out information and I liked meeting people from different parts of the world, mainly America, Australia and Canada who had ancestors in that county. I thought that when I had the time I’d like to look up my ancestors too.

My sister has spent several years looking at different records and has gone back to the early 1700s for some of the family. There’s still a lot to do and so I’ve started to find my way around family history records. So far I haven’t actually left the house yet as there is so much available on line. It’s extremely time-consuming and absorbing, not to mention complicated and frustrating.

You can go back to 1837 in civil records of births, marriages and deaths on-line, but I find myself going round in circles, with page after page of name indexes. It is satisfying when you find the right person and then order their birth certificate (or whatever) on line and it arrives in the post a few days later. For information before 1837 you can look at parish registers, which record when people were baptised, married and buried – I think I’ll have to travel all over the UK to see these, although the IGI (International Genealogical Index) is a good place to start. This contains millions of entries of names, taken from parish registers and other sources. I can look at this locally in the Local History Study Centre where they also have microfiche of the annual printed indexes to the National Probate Index 1858 – 1943. I’d love to find an old will as these provide the deceased's name, occupation, address, date and place of death, the names of executors and the value of the estate. Now that would be interesting, but how likely is it that my ancestors left anything like that?

I particularly like the Census Returns, which list people where they were living on a particular day every ten years. These are available from 1841 up to 1901. You can look at these on line too. After a while your eyes begin to feel as though they’re to big for their sockets, you get a headache, hunched shoulders and a round back from sitting and staring at the computer. But at least this lists everyone living at an address at that date, gives their age and occupation, relationship to other people at that address and the place they were born.

I like to pad out the information as much as possible. So far, I don’t think any of my ancestors have left diaries – that would really be a bonus. I can’t find it, but I remember seeing a photo of my Taid (grandfather) wearing a 'slouch' hat in a group of other young men, dressed in khaki. He told me it was taken when he was in South Africa. This week this set me off on the trail of the Boer War records and I found that there were three people with his surname and initial listed in the Roll of Honour as recipients of the Transport Medal in 1900. One was the second mate on the 'Hawarden Castle', a ship transporting troops to South Africa in 1900 and as he was 20 in 1900 I can't think this was him. The others were officers in the Royal Hussars and that couldn't have been him either. I can't think where to look for more information.

There may be a lull in my book posts while I’m delving into the past. One book that may help is Tracing Your Family Tree by Jean Cole and John Titford and there are realms of websites to keep me busy, before I even leave home to see if I can visit the places my ancestors lived.

There are so many resources to investigate, too many for this post, for example I love looking at old maps and finding out what the area was like when they lived there.

Books Read in 2008

Clicking on the highlighted titles takes you to my posts on the books

  1. The Photograph, Penelope Lively
  2. The Man in the Picture, Susan Hill
  3. I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
  4. The Owl Service, Alan Garner – a re-read
  5. The Christmas Train, David Baldacci
  6. The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett
  7. Winter in Madrid, C J Sansom
  8. Mr Blossom’s Shop, Barbara Euphan Todd
  9. The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster
  10. The Moon and Sixpence, W Somerset Maugham
  11. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
  12. The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson
  13. Books, Baguettes and Bedbugs, Jeremy Mercer
  14. The Illusionist, Jennifer Johnston
  15. Hearts and Minds, Rosy Thornton
  16. A God Divided, Christopher Catherwood
  17. The Death of the Moth & Other Essays, Virginia Woolf also see here
  18. Two Caravans, Marina Lewycka
  19. Daniel Isn’t Talking, Marti Leimbach
  20. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimananda Adichie
  21. Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders, Gyles Brandreth
  22. Consequences, Penelope Lively
  23. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
  24. Revelation, C J Sansom
  25. Giving Up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel
  26. Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen
  27. Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster
  28. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
  29. The Death of Dalziel, Reginald Hill
  30. A Good Hanging and other stories, Ian Rankin
  31. The Maytrees, Annie Dillard
  32. The Chrysalids, John Wyndham

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Let’s Review… Booking Through Thursday

This week’s question is suggested by Puss Reboots:

How much do reviews (good and bad) affect your choice of reading? If you see a bad review of a book you wanted to read, do you still read it? If you see a good review of a book you’re sure you won’t like, do you change your mind and give the book a try?

I like reading reviews, sometimes more than the books they're reviewing. I don't like reviews that tell you everything about the plot, but I do like to know a little bit about the story and the characters. I like to think that I make up my own mind about a book and often don't read a review if I've already decided to read a book until after I've read it. I realise that this does mean that I am affected by bad reviews and I do get disappointed if a reviewer criticises a book I have enjoyed.

I've rambled about enough without really answering the question. Yes, I will still read a book I wanted to read even if it has had a bad review, after all everyone has different likes and dislikes. If I see a good review of a book I'm sure I won't like I still wouldn't read it. If I haven't decided whether to read it or not, but think I may not like it I would have a look at it in a bookshop or library based on the good review and then decide.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Journey Across America

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci (Pan Books 2002, 260p)

I’ve been reading The Christmas Train and got engrossed in the route taken by Tom Langdon as he travelled by train from Washington DC across America to Los Angeles. I’ve had to look at Google Maps and Google Earth, Wikipedia and other internet sites in my quest to learn more about the places the train journey passed through. Knowing next to nothing about the geography of the USA I’ve found this a fascinating exercise.

I wouldn’t have read this book at all if Sam at The Life and Times of Me hadn’t mentioned it in her comment on my post on Christmas Books. I saw the book in my local library and I nearly didn’t pick it up, as the cover of the book didn’t attract me at all. However, the cover does not reflect the story. It’s not about a toy train in one of those snow shaker globes – the ones with a picture and liquid inside that you shake to start the snow particles falling. It is about a real train and real snow at Christmas time. Basically it’s a love story, Tom, a world-weary journalist is travelling from Washington DC to spend Christmas with his girlfriend who lives in Los Angeles. It’s also a detective story as there is a thief on the train and I didn’t work out the thief’s identity at all, so that was a surprise. Added to that are the stories of the staff and other passengers, including Eleanor, the long-lost love of Tom’s life, and her employer, Max a movie director – what is the real reason they are travelling by train, after all Max has his own private jet?

The book is easy to read but what really interested me were the journey and some references that are really extra to the plot. First the references – Mark Twain and The Cumberland Gap. Tom has decided to use the time on the train to write a story about the journey, inspired by the fact that Sam Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain had married one of his ancestors. There was a legend that Twain had never published the story of his transcontinental railroad trip taken at Christmas time during the latter part of his life and Tom’s father had asked him to finish the story Twain had never published. Tom refers to Twain’s Innocents Abroad, an account of a five-month journey on a steam ship to Europe and the Holy Land, as “one of the funniest, most irreverent travel books ever written.” I’d like to read that book. I’ve already got Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn lined up to read this year, so now I’m looking out for Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi and The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg as well.

The Cumberland Gap I knew of before reading this book is the song by Lonnie Donegan from the late 1950s and I’d never realised that it referred to a gap in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee, a natural breach in the mountains on the route to the Plains and the Pacific; an ancient path widened by Daniel Boone to take wagons into the western frontiers. Reading the book I had the words of the song going through my head over and over again – I suppose that’s not the effect that David Baldacci would have expected from his readers, but I enjoyed it.

Photo of Cumberland Gap licensed under the Creative Commons License

I think David Baldacci must like Mark Twain, Hitchcock films maybe (North by Northwest starring Cary Grant gets a mention), and above all I think he must like trains. He obviously has researched the passenger train service, Amtrak – the Capitol Line from Washington D C to Chicago and then the Southwest Chief on to Los Angeles. I got to know a bit about the places the trains either stopped at or went by - Rockville, Maryland where F Scott Fitzgerald is buried, Harper’s Ferry West where John Brown made his raid on the federal army before the Civil War started – another song going through my head – “John Brown’s body lies a’mouldering in the grave …”, Cumberland Gap, over the Mississippi – another song in my head, this time Paul Robeson’s “Ol Man River”; Kansas City and Dodge City - thinking of outlaws, Gunsmoke and High Noon. On the train goes through the Raton Pass, Apache Canyon (more western films pop into my head), Las Vegas in New Mexico, La Junta and Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Albuquerque (visions of the Rio Grande) and Gallup before reaching Los Angeles. The climax comes as the train is halted in its tracks with no way back to Chicago or forward to Los Angeles and they need a miracle to survive.

I enjoyed this book on several levels. I liked the story; it’s an entertaining easy read with a few surprises along the way. I liked the characters, the snapshot insights into the lives of a variety of people and the passing scenery of the numerous places on the journey. David Baldacci has written numerous books, so there are plenty more of his for me to read and I’ll be looking out for them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Food and Drink Meme – Comfort Food

This meme came from Geranium Cat at Cat Musings and as I’ve been thinking it was about time that I wrote about food and cooking here are my answers.

What did you eat/drink today?

For breakfast I had what I usually have – apple juice and then porridge with the addition of dried apricots, dates, cranberries, walnuts and yoghurt and just a dash of milk. When I was a child we had to make it in a pan on top of the cooker; it took ages to cook and you had to keep stirring – I used to like it with golden syrup just swirled on the top. These days I cook it in the microwave and it takes 2 ½ minutes. For lunch I had homemade leek and potato soup and homemade bread, with a glass of water. For dinner tonight we’ll have “Wok-It Chicken” – left over chicken, with stirred fried vegetables and egg noodles.

Also this afternoon in a throw-back to the 1970s we’re going to have a slice of black forest gateau with a cup of tea.

What do you never eat/drink?

I eat most food, but not things that my dad used to like, such as tripe, pigs trotters, brains and rollmop herrings. Mum used to cook these for him regularly but I would never eat any of it. I don’t like tinned tuna, fresh is nice, but tinned is just like cardboard. I’m not too keen on red meat, although I do like roast beef and I will eat beef casserole. These days I eat very little lamb and hardly any pork. I never drink whisky, I can't stand the stuff.

Favourite failsafe thing to cook (if you cook) or defrost if you don't

Spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne, steak and mushroom pie or fish pie.

Complete this sentence: In my refrigerator, you can always find

Milk, yoghurt which I make in a yoghurt maker about twice a week, fruit juice, eggs, cheese, carrots, peppers, and broccoli. There are usually some cans of lager (not for me!) and sometimes a bottle of white wine (yes, for me).

What is your favourite kitchen item?

Like Geranium Cat I like my hand-held blender, which is indispensable for making soup. It’s great for pureeing food, whisking up batter for Yorkshire puddings and whipping cream etc, so much easier than a food processor and easier to wash as well.

Where would you recommend eating out - either on home turf or elsewhere?

I think one of the best meals I’ve eaten was in The Fleur De Lys restaurant at the Savoy Hotel in Funchal, Madeira, but it’s a bit far to go!

The world ends tomorrow. What would you like for your last meal?

That’s like asking what book, apart from the Bible and Sakespeare, would I take on a desert island – there are so many to choose from and food is nearly as bad (I mean good!). I love all kinds of pasta, penne in particular, so maybe it would be penne with chicken and arrabiatta sauce, or grilled trout, new potatoes with broccoli, followed by creme brulĂ©e, or anything made with chocolate.

Time for tea and gateau now.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Squeamish Obsessions of Edgar Allan Poe

I read some of Edgar Allan Poe's Tales of Mystery and Imagination last year and , although I found the Tales themselves a bit disappointing, I became interested in his life. So I listened to BBC Radio 4's Open Book programme this afternoon when Peter Ackroyd discussed how Poe's strange obsessions and troubled relationships with women affected his life, and outlined the mystery of his death. Ackroyd's biography of Edgar Allan Poe is due out on 7 February this year and it's going on my wishlist.

The programme gave me more insight into Poe's work and made me think I'll go back to the Tales. Ackroyd talked about Poe's life and character. Apparently he was a difficult person to understand or to like and was accused of being a hypocrite and a liar. He lived a life of penury and misery and his obsessions were reflected in the themes of his Tales - death, illness, premature burial, decay, and a sense of doom. He earned very little from his writing, either as a critic, or as a poet despite the success of his poem The Raven.

Louise Welsh, Kim Newman and Diane Roberts were also taking part in the programme. Apart from being the first Amercian writer of gothic horror, Poe is also credited with inventing the literary detective through Dupin, and the beginnings of science fiction, in Words with a Mummy which recounts how an Egyptian mummy is electrified (through its nose!), opening its eyes, blinking, etc and eventually speaking, in Egyptian of course! I must read that one. Poe's work is both dark, ironic and claustrophobic, conveying as it does the fear of constriction in confined and dark places. I remember vividly my horror of waking in the pitch blackness of a two-man tent way out in the countryside, far from street lighting and my panic as I tried to get out.

Poe's work has a cultural afterlife - through films of his stories and in music. Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Poe's work as was Stephen King and other authors such as William Faulkener, in such books as The Sound and the Fury. Modern authors have tried to solve the riddle of his death but as Peter Ackroyd said it is still a mystery and it was "an unhappy, unfortunate death to end an unhappy unfortunate life." Last year I read The Poe Shadow by Matthew Pearl and I think Ackroyd's biography should be an interesting and more factual account.

Louise, Kim and Diane recommended the following stories for someone who has never read any of Poe's tales: Ligeia, William Wilson and The Fall of the House of Usher. Ligeia is unknown to me and I'll try to start my reading of Poe again with that one. Louise Walsh said that it was about the dangerousness of learning.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Owl Service by Alan Garner

This is an extraordinary book. Now I've finished reading The Owl Service it's made me want to go back to Wales. I'll begin this post with a photo taken from Wikimedia of Yr Wydffa (Snowdon) showing the beauty of Wales.

I read about the book on the Slaves of Galconda blog and remembered how much I had enjoyed Alan Garner’s book The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, about the wizard watching over the 140 enchanted knights sleeping in the caves at Alderley Edge (another beautiful place in Cheshire). The Slaves’ reviews made me eager to read The Owl Service and luckily the next time I visited the library there was a copy on the shelves in the children’s section.

The Owl Service is not just a children’s book – it’s for anyone who likes a good story with a mixture of mystery, adventure and history. The setting is very important – it is in Wales, that beautiful Land of My Fathers (well, in my case my mother’s). It’s always a mysterious, magical place, and although the sun does shine it is usually shrouded in cloud and pouring rain whenever I visit. The basis of the story is the Welsh legend from The Mabinogion about Lleu and his wife Blodeuwedd who was made for him out of flowers. It’s a tragic story because Blodeuwedd and her lover Gronw murdered Lleu, who was then brought back to life by magic. Lleu then killed Gronw by throwing a spear, which went right through the stone behind which Gronw was hiding; Blodeuwedd was then turned into an owl.

As I’d read about the book on the Slaves blog I knew the story, but this was enhanced by the Postscript in which Alan Garner tells how he came to write it. In his words The Owl Service is “a kind of ghost story” and the legend is “not just a magical tale, but a tragedy of three people who destroy each other through no fault of their own but just because they were forced together.”

The three people forced together, unable to get away from each other are Alison, her stepbrother Roger and Gwyn. They are all living in Wales in Alison’s house, which she inherited from her father, together with Clive, Roger’s father, Margaret, Alison’s mother and Nancy, Gwyn’s mother. Another important character is Huw Halfbacon, who lives in one of the stable rooms at the house. You are plunged into the mystery right at the beginning of the book, when Alison hears something scratching in the ceiling above her bedroom. When they find a dinner service in the loft this sets in motion a chain of events as the legend comes to life.

Alison appears to be enchanted by the pattern of flowers on the plates. She traces it and makes it into paper owls, which then disappear and so does the pattern on the plates. These events enrage Nancy and confuse everybody else, except Huw. Huw appears at first as the local half-wit, the butt of Roger who calls him all sorts of names, reflecting the antagonism between the Welsh and the English. But Huw is far from being stupid. He is the person who helps Gwyn to understand what is going on and prevents him from leaving the valley. Roger, obsessed by his discovery of the hole in the stone by the river, repeatedly takes photos of the view of the ridge above framed by the hole. He is also jealous of Alison’s friendship with Gwyn, who he reviles as “ … intelligent: but he is not one of us and never will be. He’s a yob. An intelligent yob. That’s all there is to it.”

Then a life-size painting of a beautiful woman is discovered or rather makes its presence known in the billiard room, once the old dairy. Who painted it, who painted the design on the dinner service, why were they hidden and why have they been revived? As the tension builds around the three central characters the tragic story of Blodeuwedd is being re-enacted. Will it have the same tragic ending?

Within the story Alan Garner has also addressed various issues, such as class, racial and social distinctions, education and family relationships. The English owning houses in Wales are seen as interlopers by the Welsh. (I remember the time years ago when houses owned by English people using them as weekend cottages, were burnt in protest.) Huw says:

“Oh their name is on the books of the law, but I own the ground, the mountain, the valley: I own the song of the cuckoo, the brambles, the berries: the dark cave is mine!”

Nancy too has her prejudices and wants Gwyn to speak in English: “You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.” Gwyn has bought an elocution course to help with his pronunciation and when Roger finds out he mocks him. I didn’t like Roger much and Alison irritated me a bit with her docile acceptance of her mother’s ban on her contact with Gwyn. We never actually meet her mother, but I didn’t take to her either – she sounds such a snob.

Although much of the story and tension is revealed through the conversations between the characters Alan Garner's descriptions of the countryside make me feel as though I was there:

“Roger splashed through the shallows to the bank, A slab of rock stood out of the ground close by him, and he sprawled backwards into the foam of meadowsweet that grew thickly round its base. He gathered the stems in his arms and pulled the milky heads down over his face to shield him from the sun.

Through the flowers he could see a jet trail moving across the sky, but the only sounds were the river and a farmer calling sheep somewhere up the valley.

The mountains were gentle in the heat. The ridge above the house, crowned with a grove of fir trees, looked black against the summer light. He breathed the cool sweet air of the flowers. He felt the sun drag deep in his limbs.”

However, the weather changes as the tension and panic build up. The heat intensifies:

“There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white towards the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountains made his heart shake.”

Then the weather changes over night and the valley is “sealed by cloud”. Gwyn in trying to get away goes up into the mountains and this description expresses to me Wales at its bleakest, and its most beautiful:

“He saw mountains wherever he looked: nothing but mountains away and away and away, their tops hidden sometimes, but mountains with mountains behind them in desolation for ever. There was nowhere in the world to go.”

At the climax of the story the storm breaks, the rain falls “in solid rods of water”. When it rains in Wales – it rains! “The mountains showed him rain a mile wide and a thousand feet high.”

Thursday, January 10, 2008

May I Introduce - Booking Through Thursday

Sometimes I find the Booking Through Thursday questions so easy to answer - but not today's.

How did you come across your favourite author(s)? Recommended by a friend? Stumbled across at a bookstore? A book given to you as a gift?
Was it love at first sight? Or did the love affair evolve over a long acquaintance?

Not easy, because first of all I have to decide who are my favourite author(s). On a different day and in a different mood I'd tell you different authors from the ones I'm going to write about now.

In no particular order of preference these authors come to my mind today:

  • Jane Austen - I first saw Pride and Prejudice serialised many years ago (in black and white - Alan Badel was Mr Darcy) and loved it. My mother had a copy and so I read it for the first time. I've read it many times since then and writing about it now I think I'm due to read it again soon.
  • Louisa May Alcott - a childhood favourite. I was given Little Women either for Christmas or a birthday present and went on to read Good Wives, Jo's Boys and Little Men.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson - another present - Treasure Island and then I read Kidnapped a set book for school.
  • Thomas Hardy - I didn't think much of Hardy on first reading - that was The Trumpet Major another set book for school, but later I read The Mayor of Casterbridge and was hooked.
  • Leo Tolstoy - I can't really remember how I came across Tolstoy. He's one of those authors that I've always known about and never read, that is until a few years ago when I bought a cheap edition of Anna Karenina and wondered why I hadn't read it before. I followed this with War and Peace and was bowled over.
  • Carol Shields - I remember this distinctly. I'd never heard of her and picked up Happenstance at Gatwick Airport, whilst waiting for a plane to Tunisia, read it in the departure lounge, on the plane and round the hotel pool, then passed it on to my husband. If you don't know it, it's written in two halves - one by the wife, then turn the book round and upside down and there is the second half by the husband. Both tell their stories of a certain period in their lives from their own point of view. I read the wife's side first. I didn't talk about it to my husband just gave him the book and he read the husband's side first. Then we discussed it and of course we both had different views on it.
  • Barbara Kingsolver - The Poisonwood Bible another airport buy and another book we've both read. This is about an evangelical Baptist missionary who takes his family to the Belgian Congo. I started reading it on the plane and collapsed at the thought of wearing many layers of clothes on the plane like the family have to as they are over the luggage allowance. This is a great book.
  • Margaret Atwood - this one is thanks to my son and daughter-in-law who gave me Cat's Eye. I read as many of hers as I can find.
  • Ian McEwan - the first one was Enduring Love. I bought it because I liked the cover and the title, which is not normally how I choose books, but I'm glad I did. I think it's still my favourite of his books.
  • Penelope Lively - I can't remember, I think I must have seen one of her books in the library. The last one I've just read is The Photograph - loved it. I'll write more about it soon.

Once I started writing this it was easy after all and I could go on and on. Looking back, it was love at first sight for all these authors, apart from Thomas Hardy, but he's a firm favourite now.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan

This is the 2007 winner of Long Barn Books First Novel Award. From the back cover of A Good Thief's Guide to Amsterdam: “Charlie Howard writes caper novels about a career thief. He also happens to be one.”

It’s set in Amsterdam, conveying its atmosphere, canals and buildings well for some one like me, who has never been there. He is asked by an American to steal two little monkey figurines to make up the set “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. They don’t appear to have any value and he has to steal them from two different people on the same night. Then the American is found murdered and at first Charlie is suspected of being the murderer.

From that point on the book moves at a fast pace through all the ins and outs of the mystery – who did murder the American, why, what is the significance of the monkeys? At the same time he has a problem with a book he is writing and spends time on the phone discussing the difficulties of sorting out the plot with Victoria, his agent in London.

It kept me guessing and amused. The only problem I had reading it was that I raced through it to find out what happens. The three monkeys have always interested me, ever since I was given a small "speak no evil" monkey. It is valuable to me as it was given to me by my favourite aunty. I don't know where it came from or why there is only one. I always wondered where the other two were. Maybe there is some mystery surrounding this set as well.

There are more Charlie Howard mysteries to come. At the end of the book he leaves Amsterdam for Paris and “A Good Thief’s Guide to Paris” will be the next book in a series of Charlie Howard mysteries, so I'm looking forward to reading more from Chris Ewan.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Spoilt City by Olivia Manning

The Spoilt City was first published in 1962, published by Arrow Books in 2004. 295 pages.

It is the second in Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy. (I wrote about the first book The Great Fortune here.) It continues the story of Guy and Harriet Pringle’s life in Bucharest during 1940. The ‘Phoney War’ is now over and the invasion by the Germans is ominously threatened causing much unrest and uncertainty.

Harriet and Guy’s ideas clash; with Harriet longing to return to England and Guy determined to stay in Bucharest. The difference in their characters is also developed. Harriet is more critical of people than Guy, who prefers to like people, knowing this is the basis of his influence over them. Her criticism troubles him, but he recognises that she is stronger than him in some ways and he is influenced by her. Harriet takes a more general view than Guy and has “rejected the faith which gave his own life purpose.”

Guy is however, pragmatic and sees religion as “part of the conspiracy to keep the rich powerful and the poor docile”. He is not interested in “fantasy” but in “practical improvement in mankind’s condition." Harriet is not so practical, but she comes to appreciate that Guy is right: “Wonders were born of ignorance and superstition. Do away with ignorance and superstition and there would be no more wonders, only a universe of unresponsive matter in which Guy was at home, though she was not. Even if she could not accept this diminution of her horizon, she had to feel a bleak appreciation of Guy, who was often proved right.”

Guy’s generosity to everyone frustrates Harriet in her attempts to survive and indeed to leave the country. They are ordered to leave but he persists in staying put as the escape routes were being blocked. As Guy argues the case for staying “ … we represent all that is left of western culture and democratic ideas”, Harriet begins to think that even though they have only been married for one year that the bonds between them are loosening.

Once again Yakimov comes to the fore, providing some comic relief. He is one of the people that Guy tries to help. He visits Von Flugel, a Nazi and an old friend in Cluj. Von Flugel thinks Yaki is a British spy, but even so he gives him 25,000 lei to return to Bucharest to buy an Ottoman rug for him. When he gets to Bucharest he finds everything has changed for the worse, the army has been called out and an attack on the palace is expected. He quickly packs up and leaves on the Orient Express for Istanbul using the money from Von Flugel.

As the blitz on London begins Harriet increases her efforts to leave the country but Guy still wants to stay. They go for a short “holiday” in Predeal in the mountains and Harriet becomes increasingly critical of Guy and feels bored in his company. As both their relationship and the situation in Rumania deteriorate Guy persuades Harriet to leave without him after their flat is raided and ransacked.

This is a bleak story and as I was reading it I thought it was not as good as the first book in the trilogy, The Great Fortune, but thinking about it now, that maybe because it is set in such an adverse situation set against the backdrop of war. I became increasingly critical of Guy and impatient for him to agree with Harriet. Perhaps that is the measure by which I should consider the book – it certainly seemed real to me and conveyed the tension and fears of living in Rumania at that time as well as chronicling the Pringles’ marriage. As with The Great Fortune there is a great deal of information about the political situation, which was new to me and at times I did find that difficult to follow, which didn’t help with my enjoyment of the book. What I did enjoy was the character development and their realtionships. I also enjoyed Olivia Manning's descriptive writing eg:

"The air was furred with heat. On the pavement the Guardist youths with their banners and pamphlets, were still trying to rouse revolt. Although a sense of revolt agitated the nerves like an electric storm that would not break, the city was lethargic, the palace dormant, its white blinds drawn down against the tedium of the afternoon. ... The height of summer was past. The dahlias were ablaze in the Cismigiu. Up the Chaussee, the trees were parched, their few leaves dangling like burnt paper, as they had been the first time she saw them. The brilliant months had gone down in fear and expectation of departure."

The story is continued in Friends and Heroes, the third book in the trilogy. The Outmoded Authors Challenge finishes at the end of this month and it's not looking as though I'll read the third book before then, but I will definitely read it before long.

All Passion Spent

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (originally published in 1931, my copy is published by the Virago Press in 1983. 297 pages).

It’s about time that I wrote about this book. I read it in December as part of Cornflower’s book group, but only made a brief comment at the time. I was pleased to find it’s one of those books that you wish you’d read before. You can read what everyone else thought about it here.

This is what I wrote:

“I wasn't sure what to expect as this is the first book by Vita Sackville-West that I've read and I was surprised that she could pack so much in to the story.

I think it's a novel of opposites: male/female, achievement opposed to desires, wealth or poverty in both material and spiritual matters, passive/aggressive, extroverts/introverts, marriage or independence.

I enjoyed it very much and would like to reread it some time. The names interest me: "Lady Slane", suggests she was, well "killed" or maybe stifled in her life by marriage and family life etc.

Someone else has commented on the parallel between Edith and her mother and I wish it had been developed more as well - Edith's character seems to have been partly defined and then abandoned.”

There’s not a lot of plot: Lady Slane is an aging British aristocrat. Her husband has recently died at the age of 94, leaving his family with the problem of “What was to be done about Mother?” The family are four sons and two daughters; the oldest is Herbert, then there are Charles, William, Kay, and the two sisters Carrie and Edith. Lady Slane at 88 is still a beautiful woman and quickly but quietly asserts her independence. She ignores her children and decides to live, with her maid Genoux, in a house in Hampstead that she had first seen thirty years previously.

She reflects on her life – she followed Henry, her husband ‘ … like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent thoughts, darting and dancing …’

She thinks back to her youth when she was full of hopes, she had determined to become a painter, but lived life within herself, not showing outwardly her intensity and longings. She was ‘slain’ by her marriage and family life, although it becomes clear that her ambitions were never more than dreams. As you would expect there are many reflections on the nature of old age and the contrast with youth; Lady Slane prefers to "wallow in old age. No grandchildren. They are too young. Not one of them has reached forty-five. No great grandchildren either; that would be worse. I want no strenuous young people, who are not content with doing a thing, but must needs know why they do it."

As I wrote in my comments above this is a novel of contrasts, beautifully written, and expressing so many emotions in a quiet unassuming manner. A gentle book, but highly critical of the way society inhibits the individual and women in particular. There is the contrast between the different attitudes towards men and women. A woman was to be "the wife of a man to whose career she might be a help and an ornament". A man would continue with his career with the addition of a wife, whereas a woman had to forego "the whole of her separate existence".

Another theme in the novel that interested me is that of the nature of the "self". Lady Slane asks herself:

"Who was the she, the "I", that had loved? And Henry who and what was he? A physical presence, threatened by time and death,, and therefore dearer for that factual menace? Or was his physical presence merely the palpable projection, the symbol, of something which might justly be called himself? ... But that self was hard to get at; obscured by the too familiar trappings of voice, name, appearance, occupation, circumstance, even the fleeting perception of self became blunted or confused. And there were many selves."

How true!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Murder Mysteries

When I wrote about the choices for the free book from newbooks magazine Nan asked if the Oscar Wilde book is a mystery, and if so is it the first in a series? She also asked about The Oxford Murders - is that a mystery or a true account?

Oscar Wilde and The Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth features, as you would expect, Oscar Wilde, the celebrated playwright, poet and wit. It’s set in London, Paris and Edinburgh at the end of the nineteenth century. When a series of brutal murders takes place Wilde is determined to solve the murders. Newbooks reports that it is “the first in a series of classic English murder mysteries in the tradition of Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers. The reviewer writes: “This book is fun; it is a literary confection with a chewy centre.” That makes it sound like a sweet – a caramel maybe. Well, the first chapter is inviting enough for me to decide this is the one I want to read first.

The Oxford Murders is by Guillermo Martinez. This is also a mystery novel set in Oxford concerning the murder first of an old lady who once helped to decipher the Enigma Code, then of other seemingly unconnected murders, accompanied by cryptic notes and coded messages. They are investigated by Arthur Seldom, a leading mathematician, who has written a best seller about serial killers and the parallels between investigation into their crimes and certain mathematical theorems. This sounds complicated but intriguing. It’s my second choice and one I’ll look at in future.

As Nan said The Coroner's Lunch is an intriguing title. She wonders how do those folks face a meal after doing their work? I can’t imagine it despite watching so many post mortems on TV shows like ‘Silent Witness’ and ‘Waking the Dead’. I certainly don't have the stomach for the job! Well, The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill is also a crime mystery novel. It is set in Laos in 1976 when the Communists have just taken over. Dr Siri Paiboun, a Paris-trained doctor remains in the country after others have fled and he is appointed state coroner, even though he has no training, experience, and equipment and doesn’t want the job. The wife of a party leader is found dead and then the bodies of tortured Vietnamese soldiers start coming to the surface of a lake. Siri has to investigate. The reviewer in newbooks writes: “the doctor enlists old friends, village shamans, forest spirits, dream visits from the dead – and even the occasional bit of medical deduction - to solve the crimes.” I can’t see why it’s called The Coroner’s Lunch from the extract in the magazine, but it did make me want to read more; another book to add to the list of books to read, based on what I’ve read so far, for example this is part of the conversation between the Judge and the Coroner:

“'And what do you put the loss of blood down to?’ Judge Haeng asked.

Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. ‘Well.’ He considered it for a moment. ‘The body’s inability to keep it in?’ The little judge hemmed and looked back down at the report. He wasn’t bright enough for sarcasm. ‘Of course, the fact that the poor man’s legs had been cut off above the knees might have had something to do with it. It’s all in the report.”

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Chunkster Challenge

I’ve decided to sign up for another challenge to help me get through my TBR list. It's to read big, fat books – or as the Challenge calls them ‘chunksters’. The books have to have 450+ pages and mine are well over that. The ones I have picked – but this may change as I like to read as the fancy takes me - are:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusack (584 pages)
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (598 pages)
The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (575 pages)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (529 pages)

It is hosted by So Many Books, So Little Time - so true!

Friday, January 04, 2008

Reading and my Favourite Books in 2007

I thought I'd see how many different types of books I'd read this year, so here are a few figures:

Total number of books read: 98

  • Fiction: 88
  • Non-Fiction: 10
  • Books re-read: 2 (I was surprised as I thought I'd read more re-reads)
  • Different books by authors whose books I've read before: 14
  • Books borrowed from the library: 52 (thank goodness for libraries)
  • Books borrowed from family/friends: 4 (and for family and friends)

Favourite books 2007

I read so many good books last year that it’s very difficult to decide which are my favourites. I tried to rate them as I read them but even so I gave nearly half of them the highest rating. I suppose that’s not so surprising as I don’t carry on reading a book that I don’t enjoy.

My favourite book has to be Jenny Diski’s On Trying to Keep Still. I wrote about it here.

As for the rest I don’t really like to single any out one more than others but the following books stand out in my mind. I can’t limit them to 10 and I’ve listed them in alphabetical author order, as I can’t decide between them:

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder
Alan Bennett – Four Stories
Ariana Franklin – Mistress of the Art of Death
Jane Gardam – Old Filth
Joanne Harris – Gentlemen and Players
Mary Lawson – Crow Lake
Linda Olsson – Astrid and Veronika
Mollie Panter-Downes – One Fine Day
Philip Pullman – His Dark Materials (three books)
Philip Reeve – Here Lies Arthur
C J Sansom - Sovereign
Wallace Stegner – The Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety

I must mention D H Lawrence too. I read two of his books as part of the Outmoded Authors Challenge. He shouldn't be considered "outmoded" - Sons and Lovers and The Man Who Died are great stories.

All in all a fantastic year of reading.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Anticipation - Booking Through Thursday

        • Last week we talked about the books you liked best from 2007. So this week, what with it being a new year, and all, we’re looking forward….

        • What new books are you looking forward to most in 2008? Something new being published this year? Something you got as a gift for the holidays? Anything in particular that you’re planning to read in 2008 that you’re looking forward to? A classic, or maybe a best-seller from 2007 that you’re waiting to appear in paperback?

        This is my first post in 2008 - Happy New Year everyone.

        I'm looking forward to reading C J Sansom's new book Revelation, which will be published in April. This is the fourth book featuring Matthew Shardlake and is set in Spring, 1543, when King Henry VIII is wooing Lady Catherine Parr, whom he wants for his sixth wife. It's a time of religious mania when the insane are considered as heretics, imprisoned in Bedlam and burnt at the stake. When an old friend is horrifically murdered Shardlake, a lawer-cum-detective, promises to bring the killer to justice. His search leads him to connections not only with a boy in Bedlam but with Cranmer and Catherine Parr and with the dark prophecies of the Book of Revelation. I've loved the other Matthew Shardlake books and expect this one will be just as good.

        I'm also looking forward to reading another book not yet published - Nothing to be Frightened Of by Julian Barnes. I read about it in the paper at the weekend. It's a meditation and memoir, about God, death and art, which sounds fascinating. It's out in March.

        Then I have lots of books on my wish list and loads on my 'to be read' list - plenty to keep me going. Some of these I've included in the 'What's in a Name' and 'Celebrate the Author' Challenges. I've already read two of the books I had for Christmas Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve and The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill, both of which I've been looking forward to reading and both were compelling and very enjoyable - worth waiting for. I am now reading a third Christmas present, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. I first read this as a teenager, but after all that time it's like reading it for the first time.