Mount TBR Challenge 2021: 1st Checkpoint

I’ve been doing quite well with Bev’s Mount TBR Challenge so far this year. Up to the end of March I read 14 of my TBRs, so I’ve climbed Pike’s Peak and have made progress up Mont Blanc. Bev asks us to complete one of more questions. I’ve answered two::

Post a picture of your favourite cover so far.

I love this scene on the cover of James Rebanks’ English Pastoral. And the book is wonderful. It is inspirational as well as informative and it is beautifully written.

And secondly, Which book (read so far) has been on your TBR mountain the longest? Was it worth the wait? Or is it possible you should have tackled it back when you first put it on the pile? Or tossed it off the edge without reading it all?

Orlando by Virginia Woolf had been on my TBR shelves for nearly 5 years. It was well worth the wait. It’s such a fantastical novel, spanning 500 years. There are copious literary, historical, and personal allusions; a book steeped in history showing how the passage of time had changed both the landscape and climate of England along with its society.

New Additions at BooksPlease

I’ve been lucky with some of the 99p e-books on offer on Amazon recently and bought three books, well five actually as one is a trilogy.

First a nonfiction book, Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties by historian, Peter Hennessy. The centre of the book is 1963 – the year of the Profumo Crisis, the Great Train Robbery, the satire boom, de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s first application to join the EEC, the fall of Macmillan and the unexpected succession to the premiership of Alec Douglas-Home. Then, in 1964, the battle of what Hennessy calls the tweedy aristocrat and the tweedy meritocrat – Harold Wilson, who would end 13 years of Conservative rule and usher in a new era. It’s the final book in Hennessy’s Post War trilogy.

Then three novels – all historical fiction: The Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, three novels set during the First World War. I already had the third book, but hadn’t read it because I wanted to read the trilogy in order. It tells the story of three men, shell-shocked soldiers, who were sent back to the front. It’s based on the experiences of poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wifred Owen who met at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – A few years ago I borrowed this book from the library but had to return it unread. Later on I watched the TV series and thought I’d like to read the book. So, when it was on offer for 99p I bought it. It’s set in Amsterdam in 1686. Nella Oortman marries a rich merchant, but life in her new home is unfulfilled. Even her cabinet house brings a mystery to the secretive world she has entered as the lifelike miniatures somehow start eerily foreshadowing her fate.

This last book is my choice this month from Amazon First Reads free books:

Tears of Amber by Sofía Segovia – a novel set during the Second World War in East Prussia between 1938 and 1947. In her author’s note Sofia Segovia says her novel was inspired by the story of Ilse and Arno Schipper, who established a factory in Monterrey, Mexico, her home town. It is a mix of fact and fiction. Publication date 1 May 2021. I have started reading and it’s looking good so far.

The Classics Club Spin Result

The spin number in The Classics Club Spin is number …

which for me is Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by 31 May, 2021.

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit is indisputably one of Dickens’ finest works, written at the height of his powers. George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a masterpiece among masterpieces’, a verdict shared by the novel’s many admirers. (Description from Amazon)

I have started this a few times before, but found the small print in my paperback copy too off putting. I’ll be reading the e-book this time.

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

Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie

I first read Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia in 2012 but never got round to writing about it. It was a good choice to re-read for the 1936 Club as I didn’t remember much about it. It’s a Poirot mystery, but he doesn’t appear until about halfway. As the title tells you it is set in Mesopotamia, the area in the Middle East between the two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates (the area of present-day Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey).

An archaeologist’s wife is murdered on the shores of the River Tigris in Iraq…

It was clear to Amy Leatheran that something sinister was going on at the Hassanieh dig in Iraq; something associated with the presence of ‘Lovely Louise’, wife of celebrated archaeologist Dr Leidner.

In a few days’ time Hercule Poirot was due to drop in at the excavation site. But with Louise suffering from terrifying hallucinations, and tension within the group becoming almost unbearable, Poirot might just be too late…

Agatha Christie had first visited the Middle East in 1929 travelling on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on to Damascus and Baghdad. She visited the excavations at Ur and returned there the following spring where she met archaeologist Max Mallowan – by the end of the summer they had decided to marry, which they did on 11 September 1930. So, by 1936 when she wrote Murder in Mesopotamia she had frequently accompanied Max on his archaeological digs and her books set in the Middle East are based on the everyday life that she experienced on a dig and on the people she met.

The murder victim is Louise Leidner, the wife of the leader of the expedition. The novel is narrated by Nurse Amy Leatheran, who had been asked by Dr Leidner to care for Louise, although he is vague about what is wrong with her. It seems she is scared and has nervous terrors. She has fearful visions and the other members of the expedition blame her for the oppressive atmosphere on the dig.

It’s a seemingly impossible murder – she is found in her room, dead from a blow on her head, and suspicion falls on Louise’s first husband who had been sending her threatening letters, or so she had claimed. But no strangers had been seen on or near the expedition house and it is down to Poirot to discover what had actually happened. Fortunately Poirot was in the area, having sorted out a military scandal in Syria (referred to at the beginning of Murder on the Orient Express) and was passing through the expedition site on his way to Baghdad before returning to London.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I think the details of how the murder was committed are rather far-fetched. I was hoping that Agatha Christie had mentioned writing it in her Autobiography, but I couldn’t find any reference to it, although she wrote extensively about her time in the Middle East with Max, and in her fascinating memoir, Come, Tell Me How You Live she wrote about how much she loved the country and its people.

The Mirror Dance by Catriona McPherson

Hodder and Stoughton| 21 January 2021| 259 pages| e-book| Review copy| 3*

Description:

Something sinister is afoot in the streets of Dundee, when a puppeteer is found murdered behind his striped Punch and Judy stand, as children sit cross-legged drinking ginger beer. At once, Dandy Gilver’s semmingly-innocuous investigation into plagiarism takes a darker turn. The gruesome death seems to be inextricably bound to the gloomy offices of Doig’s Publishers, its secrets hidden in the real stories behind their girls’ magazines The Rosie Cheek and The Freckle.

On meeting a mysterious professor from St Andrews, Dandy and her faithful colleague Alex Osbourne are flung into the worlds of academia, the theatre and publishing. Nothing is quite as it seems, and behind the cheerful facades of puppets and comic books, is a troubled history has begun to repeat itself.

My thoughts:

I’ve read some of the Dandy Gilver mysteries by Catriona McPherson, set in the 1920s and 1930s Scotland. The Mirror Dance is the 15th book. The last one I read was the 6th, a few years ago now, so when I saw it on NetGalley I requested it. I was pleased to find, that although I’d missed so many of the books in the series, it’s easy to read as a standalone.

It begins on an August Bank Holiday weekend in 1937, when Dandy (short for Dandelion Dahlia!), a private detective, receives a phone call from Miss Sandy Bissett, a magazine publisher in Dundee. She asks Dandy to go to Dudhope Park to warn the Punch and Judy man there that he is infringing copyrighted property as he is using two of the magazine’s cartoon characters, Rosie Cheeke and Freckles in his show. So, the next day, Bank Holiday Monday, together with her female staff, Grant, her lady’s maid, Becky her housemaid and Mrs Tilling, her cook, Dandy goes to Dundee to see the puppet show, looking out for the appearance of the magazine characters.

But during the show, the puppet Scaramouche extended his neck upwards, unfolding from pleats like an accordion and then stayed still like a tableau. The children lost interest and the adults were grumbling. When Dandy and Grant went to the back of the Punch and Judy tent they found the puppeteer slumped dead behind the scene, with his throat cut. The police are called but Dandy and her partner, Alec take it upon themselves to investigate the murder, an apparently impossible murder, with no signs of the murderer, and no one knew the puppeteer’s name.

I liked the setting. There is a good sense of location in Dundee in the 1930s, when the effects of the First World War were still lingering and the threat of another war was on the horizon. This is a convoluted murder mystery, where there is more than meets the eye. There is a lot of detail about the publishing industry and the theatrical world of the time which was interesting, but overall the amount of detail of everyday life, with all its sights and smells, slowed the book down too much for me.

There are several complications, red herrings and apparent impossibilities and I was puzzled about the relevance of a murder 50 years earlier in the same park, of an earlier Punch and Judy man. I became a bit lost in the detail about the number of women suspects Dandy and Alec consider – there were two, and then perhaps there were three. Who were they and what was the motive for the murder? Gradually that became clear, but I got exasperated at the number of times Dandy and the others went over and over what was happening, working out how it could have happened and why. Although some of it is confusing and I hadn’t worked out the identity of the murderer some of it seemed so obvious to me that I couldn’t see why it took them so long to work it out. So, although I enjoyed the actual murder mystery and the mirror dance aspect, where everything is turned on its head, I did not enjoy how it was told.

My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

The 1936 Club: Books I’ve Already Read

The 1936 Club hosted by Karen at kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at stuckinabook begins today. These are the books published in that year that I’ve already read:

  •  The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
  • Murder in Mesopotamia by Agatha Christie – I didn’t review it and am currently re-reading it.
  • Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie
  • Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier – I read this before I began blogging
  • The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay

There is just one book published in 1936 that own but haven’t read yet, Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston. So I’ll be reading that this week along with re-reading Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia that I first read in May 2012, because I never wrote a review post about it. And there are some short stories, first published in 1936 that I haven’t read yet, such as Problem at Sea, which is included in the short story collection, Poirot’s Early Cases, that I may get round to as well.

Classics Club Spin

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin. Before next Sunday 18th April, 2021, create a post that lists twenty books of your choice that remain “to be read” on your Classics Club list. This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books by the end of the spin period. On Sunday 18th April the Classics Club will post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List by 31st May, 2021.

I have just 5 books left on my list, so I’ve repeated the list four times:

  1. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  2. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  3. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  5. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollop
  6. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  7. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  8. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  9. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  10. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollop
  11. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  12. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  13. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  14. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  15. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollop
  16. Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
  17. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
  18. Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  19. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  20. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollop

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

Canongate| 6 August 2020| 325 pages| e-book| Review copy| 4*

I’m late getting round to reading A Room Made of Leaves, because I am behind with reviewing my NetGalley books. But it was well worth the wait. It’s historical fiction telling the story of the Macarthurs, Elizabeth and John Macarthur, who settled in Australia at the end of the eighteenth century. It’s based on the real lives of the Macarthurs using letters, journals and official documents of the early years of the New South Wales colony. But, although based on fact this is not history, it is fiction, as Kate Grenville makes clear in her Author’s Note at the end of the book (which I read after I read the opening paragraphs of the Editor’s Note at the start of the book).

Description

It is 1788. Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth is hungry for life but, as the ward of a Devon clergyman, knows she has few prospects. When a soldier, John Macarthur promises her the earth one midsummer’s night, she believes him and with a baby on the way she marries him. Only then he tells her he is to take up a position as Lieutenant in a New South Wales penal colony and she has no choice but to go. Sailing for six months to the far side of the globe with a child growing inside her, she arrives to find Sydney Town a brutal, dusty, hungry place of makeshift shelters, failing crops, scheming and rumours.

All her life she has learned to be obliging, to fold herself up small. Now, in the vast landscapes of an unknown continent, Elizabeth has to discover a strength she never imagined, and passions she could never express. 

Inspired by the real life of a remarkable woman, this is an extraordinarily rich, beautifully wrought novel of resilience, courage and the mystery of human desire.

My thoughts:

I’ve enjoyed all of the books by Kate Grenville that I’ve read so far. Her writing suits me – historical fiction, straight-forward story-telling, with good descriptive writing setting the scenes vividly in their locations. I find her books difficult to put down and they stay in my mind long after I’ve finished reading. This one is no exception.

It begins in Devon where Elizabeth was born and grew up, first with her parents and then after her father died on her grandfather’s sheep farm and then with the local vicar’s family, whose daughter, Bridie is her friend. There she meets John Macarthur, an ensign. When she becomes pregnant they marry and then he tells her he has signed on as a lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps in the penal colony at Sydney Cove. But their married life is not a happy one. John was rash, impulsive, changeable, self-deceiving, and given to embarking on grandiose schemes. He was quick to take offence and was dangerously unbalanced. Over the course of their marriage he was forced to return to England twice, at first for four years and later for nine. During that time Elizabeth made the best of life, carrying on with their sheep farm at Parramatta, where she improved the flock, and helped to establish New South Wales as a reliable supplier of quality wool.

One of the outstanding parts of the book for me is her relationship with William Dawes, an astronomer with the Corps, who was mapping the night sky. He had an observatory near Elizabeth’s farm and it was there that she met some of the local inhabitants and learned a bit of their language and about their ways of life. And it is with William that Elizabeth learns to appreciate not just the night sky, but also the landscape and its flora and fauna and in particular the ‘room made of leaves’ – a private space enclosed on three sides by greenery, a place where you could simply be yourself.

This is a book that captivated me from the opening paragraphs, and there is so much more in it than I have mentioned in this post. It gave me much to think about, in particular bearing in mind the epigraph, an actual quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters: Believe not too quickly, reminding me that this is a work of fiction. I enjoyed it immensely. And it makes me want to know more about the Macarthurs. I came across Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World and I was delighted to see that Kate Grenville references this book as the standard biography in her Acknowledgements. It is now on my wishlist!

Many thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for my review copy.

My Friday Post: Weeds by Richard Mabey

On Fridays I join in with two book memes:

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

This week I’m featuring a non-fiction book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Weeds by Richard Mabey. This is a book that I’ve dipped into, mostly at this time of year, when the weeds in our garden begin to grow again. It is full of fascinating facts – a cultural history of weeds. Richard Mabey argues that ‘we have caused plants to become weeds because of our reckless treatment of the earth. They are part of nature’s immune system, of its instinctive drive to green over the barrenness of broken soil and decaying cities.

Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or tidy maps of the world. If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame. My own discovery of them was my first close encounter with plants, and they seemed to me like a kind of manna.

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

To gaze at Albrecht Durer’s extraordinary painting Large Piece of Turf (Das Grosse Rasenstuck, (1503) is to glimpse an imagination pierced through the artistic conventions and cultural assumptions of its time and projecting itself forward three centuries. This is painting’s discovery of ecology. This is any corner of any waste patch of land in the early twenty-first century, or at any time. This is a clump of weeds looked at with such reverent attention that they might have been the flowers of Elysium.

Durer’s painting is not reproduced in the book, but this is it:

Large Piece of Turf Durer 1503

I’ve had this book for ten years – I think it’s time I read it through from start to finish.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read Pre-Blog

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog.

The topic this week is: Books I’d Gladly Throw in the Ocean, but as I’d never throw books into the ocean, my topic is Books I Read Pre-Blog (pre April 2007) and are all books I enjoyed! Some are my own books and others I borrowed from the library. The descriptions are from a number of sources.

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood – the first book of hers I read. Elaine Risley, a painter, returns to Toronto to find herself overwhelmed by her past. Memories of childhood surface relentlessly, forcing her to confront the spectre of Cordelia, once her best friend and tormentor, who has haunted her for 40 years.

The Sea by John Banville – Max Morden visits the seaside town where he spent his summers as a child after the death of his wife. There he remembers the Graces, the family that introduced him to a world of feeling he’d never experienced before. Interwoven with this story are Morden’s memories of his wife, Anna–of their life together, of her death.

Poet in the Gutter by John Baker – Sam Turner has always had a romantic yearning to be Sam Spade. So he tells his men’s group in York that he’s a private eye – it’s better than admitting he’s an unemployed alcoholic. But then one of his friends asks for help in tracking an erring wife. So suddenly Sam is a P.I. And the next thing he knows, he’s on the track of a serial killer – with the help of a street-liver and an ex-English teacher pensioner. . .

March by Geraldine Brooks – I loved the March family in Louisa May Alcott’s books and wondered about Mr March away at war, not knowing as a child which war that was. It was of course the American Civil War, and this book is about his life as an abolitionist and chaplain in the Union Army. During this time, John March writes letters to his family, but he withholds the true extent of the brutality and injustices he witnesses on and off the battlefields.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle – when Sir Charles Baskerville is found mysteriously dead in the grounds of Baskerville Hall, everyone remembers the legend of the monstrous creature that haunts the moor. The greatest detective in the world, Sherlock Holmes, knows there must be a more rational explanation — but the difficulty lies in finding it before the hellhound finds him.

Matilda by Roald Dahl – Matilda Wormwood is only five years old, but she is a genius. Unfortunately her parents are too stupid to even notice. Worse, her horrible headmistress Miss Trunchbull is a bully who makes life difficult for Matilda’s teacher, Miss Honey, and her friends. But what Miss Trunchbull doesn’t know is that Matilda has a trick or two up her sleeve… I loved the film too.

The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans – A forty-ton truck hurtles out of control on a snowy country road, a teenage girl on horseback in its path. In a few terrible seconds the life of a family is shattered. And a mother’s quest begins–to save her maimed daughter and a horse driven mad by pain. It is an odyssey that will bring her to The Horse Whisperer. He is the stuff of legend. His voice can calm wild horses and his touch heals broken spirits. For secrets uttered softly into pricked and troubled ears, such men were once called Whisperers. 

Haweswater by Sarah Hall – set in 1936 in a remote dale in the old county of Westmorland, and tells of the flooding of the dale to make way for a reservoir, against the wishes of many of the local hill farmers. It is a story of love, obsession and the destruction of a community.

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler – One hot summer day Maggie and Ira drive from Baltimore towards Pennsylvania, to the funeral of the husband of Maggie’s best friend. During the course of that journey, the author shows all there is to know about a marriage.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life; indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence.