Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of the best books I’ve read this year. It was first published in 1967 and has since been republished a few times. The copy I read was published by Vintage in 1998. It’s a novella of 189 pages, with a list of characters at the beginning followed by a note, that indicates the truth of the story it tells is in question:

Whether Picnic at Hanging Rock is fact or fiction the readers must decide for themselves. As the fateful picnic took place in the year nineteen hundred, and all the characters who appear in this book are long since dead, it hardly seems important.

On St Valentine’s Day in 1900, a party of nineteen girls accompanied by two schoolmistresses sets off from the elite Appleyard College for Young Ladies, for a day’s outing at the spectacular volcanic mass called Hanging Rock. The picnic, which begins innocently and happily, ends in explicable terror, and some of the party never returned. What happened to them remains a mystery.

I enjoyed it immensely. I love the detailed descriptions of the Australian countryside and the picture it paints of society in 1900, with the snobbery and class divisions of the period. It’s a hot day, the picnic at the base of Hanging Rock shaded from the heat by two or three spreading gums was going well, and while some of the party dozed in the sunshine four of the girls walked to the Rock to get a closer view. As they walked up to the pinnacles and crags the plain below came into sight, but infinitely vague and distant and a rather curious sound was coming up from the plain, like the beating of far off drums. They neared a monolith rising up in front of them and:

Suddenly overcome by an overpowering lassitude, all four girls flung themselves down on the gently sloping rock in the shelter of the monolith, and there fell into a sleep so deep that a horned lizard emerged from a crack to lie without fear in the hollow of Miranda’s outflung arm.

Nobody had noticed that one of the teacher had also left the picnic. The day ended dramatically when one of the girls ran screaming down to the plain, back to the picnic grounds. She had left the other three girls ‘somewhere up there’, but she had no idea where that was. Despite lengthy searches only one girl was found and she couldn’t remember what had happened. It was all very strange. There’s an eerie feeling hanging over the whole event – during the picnic two of the adults found that their watches had stopped at twelve o’clock and they had no idea of the time. It was as though time had been suspended.

It’s a deceptively simple story, but with so many layers and undercurrents, making this mysteriously compelling reading. All the characters are believable people, each with their own backstories, and all their lives are affected and changed by the events of that one day. There’s a dreamlike quality to the mystery and a suspicion of the supernatural surrounding it. I loved the ambiguity of it all.

This is a Novella in November contribution and also qualifies as an entry for AusReading Month 2021.

Short Classics: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

It’s the last week of Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca, and the final theme is short classics. The buddy read this week is Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton and I’ll post my thoughts later this week. Today my short classic is The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, which won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.In 1954 Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1954 for his mastery of the art of narrative and for the influence that he had exerted on contemporary style.

Synopsis – This is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

My thoughts:

A simple story on the surface, told in a few pages, yet full of depth. Hemingway’s language is direct and deceptively simple too, but I was drawn into his descriptive writing, almost a stream of consciousness in placea. I felt the exhaustion of the old man as he struggled to catch the enormous marlin and then to return to the shore with his catch.

It’s one of those books that I find so difficult to write about, a well known story that has received much praise and also a lot of criticism as some people find it boring.. There’s this old man alone on the sea pondering about life and death, what he has achieved and also his failures. He is at the end of his strength and yet he endures. He has perseverance and determination and pride. Pride in his ability and in his way of life. The matter of sin occupies his mind and he thinks it was a sin to kill the fish, even though he did it to keep himself alive and feed many people. Then he thought he was born to be a fisherman:

You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

So, yes this is a simple tale and well told – it is more than just a fishing story and it gave me much to ponder.

Nonfiction November: Week 4 Stranger than Fiction

Week 4: (November 22-26) – Stranger Than Fiction with Christopher at Plucked from the Stacks: This week we’re focusing on all the great nonfiction books that *almost* don’t seem real. A sports biography involving overcoming massive obstacles, a profile on a bizarre scam, a look into the natural wonders in our world—basically, if it makes your jaw drop, you can highlight it for this week’s topic.

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II by Ben Macintyre is my choice for this week. When I read it I thought that it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. It’s the ideal choice for this week’s topic!

When I reviewed this book back in 2011, I wrote:

Operation Mincemeat is about the Allies’ deception plan codenamed Operation Mincemeat in 1943, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was.

The success of the Sicilian invasion depended on overwhelming strength, logistics, secrecy and surprise. But it also relied on a wide web of deception, and one deceit in particular: a spectacular con trick dreamed up by a team of spies led by an English lawyer. (page xi)

At first I found this book a little confusing and far too detailed, but as I read on I became absolutely fascinated and amazed at what had actually happened. The plan was to take a dead body, equipped with false documents, deposit it on a beach in Spain, so that it would be passed over to the Germans and divert them from the real target into believing that the preparations to invade Sicily were a bluff.

Operation Mincemeat would feed them both a false real plan, and a false cover plan – which would actually be the real plan (page 58)

The corpse was a Welsh tramp who had committed suicide. His body was clothed in the uniform of an Royal Marine with documents identifying him as Major William Martin and letters about the top-secret Allied invasion plans. This involved creating a fictional character, a whole host of imaginary agents and sub-agents all with their own characteristics and imaginary lives – just as in a novel. The details of the deception were dreamt up by Ewan Montagu, a barrister and Charles Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley), a flight-lieutenant in the RAF seconded to MI5, the Security Service. Both were enthusiastic readers, which stood them in good stead:

For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novellist: to create an imaginary credible world, and then to lure others into it, by words and artifice. (page 62)

The plan was not without its faults and and indeed it contained some potentially fatal flaws, but incredibly it succeeded.

Operation Mincemeat was pure make-believe; and it made Hitler believe something that changed the course of history. (page 307)

This is a book, totally outside my usual range of reading. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did and I think I did enjoy it because it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.

~~~

Which nonfiction book that *almost* doesn’t seem real would you choose?

Nonfiction November: Week 3: Be the Expert

Week 3: (November 15-19) – Be The Expert/ Ask the Expert/ Become the Expert with Veronica at The Thousand Book Project: Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert). 

I’m doing Be the Expert, but I am not an expert! My post is about a subject that I read a lot and enjoy enormously, and that is Autobiography/ Biography and Memoir.

These are just some of my favourites.

  1. Ice Bound:  One Woman’s Incredible Battle for Survival by Jerri Nielsen. Dr Jerri Nielsen was a forty-six year old doctor working in Ohio when in 1998 she made the decision to take a year’s sabbatical at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, the most remote and perilous place on earth. Whilst she was there during the dark Antarctic winter of 1999 she discovered a lump in her breast. This is a true story of survival under extreme circumstances, of courage and endurance. 
  2. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang – Jung Chang’s book about her grandmother, her mother and herself, telling of their lives in China up to and during the years of the violent Cultural Revolution. Her family suffered atrociously, her father and grandmother both dying painful deaths and both her mother and father were imprisoned and tortured.
  3. Toast by Nigel Slater – the story of his childhood and adolescence told through food; food he liked and food he hated. Reading it was a nostalgic remembrance of my childhood, even though mine was so very different from his, apart from the food.
  4. Daphne by Margaret Forster – an extremely well researched and informative account of Daphne Du Maurier’s life, taken from her letters and private papers, with personal memories of her from her children, grandchildren and friends. It is a candid account of her relationships, eg her troubled married life; wartime love affair; and friendships with Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday, as well as an excellent source of information on Du Maurier’s method of writing and views on life. 
  5. Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin – I was surprised by how detailed it is given the fact that few records of her life have survived. Claire Tomalin admits that it was not an easy story to investigate, as Jane Austen wrote no autobiographical notes and if she kept any diaries they did not survive her. Most of her letters to her sister Cassandra were destroyed by Cassandra and a niece destroyed those she had written to one of her brothers. But as Tomalin discovered her life was “full of events, of distress and even trauma, which left marks upon her as permanent as any blacking factory.”
  6. Victoria: A Life by A N Wilson – masterful and detailed and like all good biographies this is well researched and illustrated, with copious notes, an extensive bibliography and an index. He had access to the Royal Archives and permission from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to quote from materials in royal copyright. He portrays her both as a woman, a wife and mother as well as a queen set against the backdrop of the political scene in Britain and Europe.
  7. Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey by Ian Rankin is fascinating, with insights into Ian Rankin’s own life and that of the character he has invented, along with his thoughts on Scotland and the Scottish character. It’s partly autobiographical, blending his own life with Rebus’s biography. It also describes many of the real life locations of the books, in particular Edinburgh, Rebus’s own territory.
  8. Giving Up the Ghost a memoir by Hilary Mantel, which she states she wrote to take charge of her memories, her childhood and childlessness, feeling that it was necessary to write herself into being. From the age of 4 she believed that she had done something wrong and she was ‘beyond remedy and beyond redemption’. She thought it was because of her that her parents were not happy and that without her they would have had a chance in life. Home was a place where secrets were kept and opinions were not voiced. Her experience of ghosts at the age of 7 was horrifying she felt as though something came inside her, ‘some formless, borderless evil’.

Novellas in November: Translation Week: Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon, Translated by David Bellos

This week’s  Novellas in November is Translation Week and I’ve chosen Georges Simenon’s Pietr the Latvian, translated by David Bellos (165 pages). It is officially the first Maigret book, although it was originally published in instalments in the magazine Ric et Rac between July and October 1930.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jules Maigret is a Detective Chief Inspector of the Flying Squad in Paris and we get a really detailed description of him – he was a broad heavy man, aged forty-five:

His clothes were well cut and made of fairly light worsted. He shaved every day and looked after his hands.

But his frame was proletarian. He was a big bony man. Iron muscles shaped his jacket sleeves and quickly wore through new trousers.

He had a way of imposing himself just by standing there. His assertive presence had often irked many of his own colleagues.

It was something more than self-confidence but less than pride. He would turn up and stand like a rock with his feet wide apart. On that rock all would shatter, whether Maigret moved forward or stayed exactly where he was.

His pipe was nailed to his jawbone. (page 21)

He has received messages that Pietr the Latvian, an international criminal, is en route by train from the Netherlands to Paris. He has a description of Pietr and went immediately to the Gare du Nord to intercept him. But on spotting him he had to let him go because a man had been murdered on the train – and that man also matched Pietr’s description. From that point on. I became increasingly confused. Who is Pietr the Latvian? Was he the man who got off the train or the man who was murdered?

There are many characters and for quite a lot of the book I struggled to work out who was who. Maigret spends his time going from place to place and interviewing many people and I really had little idea of what was going on. The question of identity plays a major part. Pietr was thought to be the head of a major international ring mainly involved in fraud, counterfeit money and forged documents and his known associates seem to be mainly British and American. The setting in the 1930s is a mix of glamorous hotels and bars in Paris, seedy back streets, and the seaside town of Fécamp in Normandy. The book does feel dated now along with the anti-antisemitism some of the characters voiced.

If you haven’t read any of the Maigret books I suggest you start with one of the later books, which are much better. What I liked about it is that it establishes Maigret’s character and appearance right from the beginning. He feels like a real person with solidity and presence. He’s also tough, carrying on chasing around after Pietr even after he’s been shot. I think it’s an interesting story, in which a lot happens and even if I was mystified at first it did become clearer as I read on and I was pleased to find that I had worked out Pietr’s identity before it was revealed.

Pietr the Latvian is included in the Inspector Maigret Omnibus 1. The four titles are Pietr the Latvian, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, The Carter of ‘La Providence’, The Grand Banks Café.

Previously I’ve read:

and

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Read If You Love Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy

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.

This week’s topic is Books to Read If You Love/Loved X (X can be a genre, specific book, author, movie/TV show, etc.). The Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel tells the story of the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII.

Wolf Hall – England in the 1520s as Henry VIII is seeking a divorce from Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. It tells of the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies, by 1535, Anne has failed to bear a son and Henry gas fallen in love with Jane Seymour – Anne has to go. This is mainly about Cromwell’s scheming to bring about Anne’s downfall. The Mirror and the Light, the final part, which I’m still reading, set in 1536 – 1540, about Cromwell’s final years.

Here are 10 other historical fiction trilogies/series that I’ve read and loved. I’ve given brief descriptions of the first books for each with links to Goodreads for the details of the rest of the series..

Mathew Shardlake Series by C J Sansom – Mathew Shardlake is a lawyer-detective in the court of Henry VIII. Seven books – I’ve read all of them. The first one Dissolution is closest in time to the third book of Mantel’s trilogy set at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in 1537. Thomas Cromwell’s Comissioner is found dead, his head severed from his body. Dr Shardlake is sent to uncover the truth behind what has happened.

Marwood and Lovett Series by Andrew Taylor – 17th century London during Charles II reign, who was restored to the throne in 1660 Five books – the first, The Ashes of London is set in 1666 just after the Great Fire. The fathers of both James Marwood and Cat Lovett has fought against Charles and so they are both disgraced. they become involved in investigating the murder of a man is found in the ruins of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Christopher Redmayne Series by Edward Marston – Christopher Redmayne, an architect, and Jonathan Bale, a constable in 1600s London, England. The first book, The King’s Evil is also set in 1666 just after the Great Fire and is also a murder mystery. Redmayne is an architect, working to restore London after the Fire, when he becomes involved in investigating the murder of Sir Ambrose Northcott. whose body was found in the cellars of his partly built new house.

Damian Seeker Series by S G MacLean – historical thrillers set in Oliver Cromwell’s London. Five books – the first is The Seeker, set in 1654. Damian Seeker, Captain of Cromwell’s Guard, works for John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Chief Secretary and spy master. England in 1654 is a Republic in name only, Parliament had been dissolved in 1653 and Cromwell was appointed as Lord Protector – King in all but name.

Raven, Fisher, and Simpson Mystery Series by Ambrose Parry – murder and medical experiments set in 19th century Edinburgh. Three books – the first one is The Way of All Flesh, set in 1847. It begins with the death of Evie, a prostitute in Edinburgh’s Old Town, found by Will Raven, a young medical student about to start his apprenticeship with Dr Simpson. a professor of midwifery, who discovered the anaesthetic properties of chloroform. Sarah Fisher, Dr Simpson’s housemaid is an ambitious and enterprising young woman who would love to have a career in medicine. She and Will join forces to uncover the killer in the depths of Edinburgh’s dark underworld.

Munro Scottish Saga Series by Margaret Skea – set 16th century Scotland. Three books, the first is Turn of the Tide which begins in 1586 in the Scottish Borders in the middle of the centuries-old feud between the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries, with all the drama of their battles, ambushes and schemes to further their standing with the young King James VI. It’s a tale of love, loyalty, tragedy and betrayal.

The Burning Chambers Series by Kate Mosse – 2 books, with a third book in progress. The first is The Burning Chambers, set in Languedoc in the south-west of France in 1562 during the French Wars of Religion. It’s centred on the Joubert family, Catholics living in Carcassonne and Piet Reydon, one of the Huguenot leaders. Bernard Joubert, a bookseller had been imprisoned accused of being a traitor and a heretic after he had let slip information about a secret will. It’s a complicated story of war, conspiracies, love, betrayal, forgery, torture and family secrets.

Cicero Series by Robert Harris- set in Ancient Rome – three books. The first is Imperium. Beginning in 79 BC, this book set in the Republican era is a fictional biography of Marcus Tullius Cicero by Tiro, his slave secretary. It is basically a political history, a story filled with intrigue, scheming and treachery in the search for political power as Cicero, a senator, works his way to power as one of Rome’s two consuls.

Theseus Series by Mary Renault – Two books, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea. I remember being captivated by these books when I first read them years ago and would so like to re-read them. They retell the life of the mythological Greek hero Theseus, following his adventures from Troizen to Eleusis, where the death in the book’s title is to take place, and from Athens to Crete, where he learns to jump bulls and is named king of the victims. In the second book Theseus defies the Gods’ and claims the throne of Athens a move that culminates in the terrible, fateful destruction of the house of Minos where he slays the Minotaur.

Alexander Seaton Series by Shona MacLean, set in 17th century Scotland. Four books, the first is The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. It is set in the town of Banff, Scotland in the 1620s. One stormy night Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s assistant collapses in the street. The next morning he is found dead in the school house of Alexander Seaton, a failed minister, now a schoolteacher. When one of Alexander’s few friends in the town is arrested for the murder, he sets out to prove his innocence.

Recent Loans from the Library

Guilty Creatures: A Menagerie of Mysteries edited and introduce by Martin Edwards. I like these anthologies as much, if not more, for Martin Edwards’ introductions than for the actual stories. I often find that they’re too short for my liking, but I’m hoping there will be some that will prove me wrong. This collection includes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, G K Chesterton, Edgar Wallace, Josephine Bell and Christianna Brand, among others.

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry. During the fist lockdown I loved watching Grayson’s Art Club, Channel 4’s documentary series hosted by him and his wife, psychotherapist Philippa Perry. In this book he is looking at masculinity, particularly examining how men dominate much of our world, how men dress and act, how men resort to crime and violence, and how men feel.

Black Sheep by Susan Hill, a novella about a brother an sister who grew up in a coal mining village and yearn to escape. Neither can break free and their decisions result in brutal consequences. It sounds a bit grim!

Rescue by Anita Shreve. The last few books by Anita Shreve I’ve read haven’t been as good as her earlier ones, so I’m hoping this one won’t be disappointing. It’s about a paramedic who rescues a troubled young woman from a car crash. They start a love affair and have a daughter. Eighteen years later he is raising the girl on his own,

Servant of Death by Sarah Hawkswood, historical murder mystery set in the 12th century, the first in the Bradcote and Catchpole mystery series. The Lord Bishop of Winchester’s clerk – is bludgeoned to death in Pershore Abbey and laid before the altar in the attitude of a penitent. Who hated him enough to murder him?

The Long Way Home by Louise Perry. I thought it looked familiar and when I got home and checked my blog I realised I’d borrowed this book before – in 2018! But I took it back unread, thinking I’d try to get the first one. It’s the 10th Chief Inspector Gamache novel – and I still haven’t read any of the previous books, so maybe I’ll read this one this time.

Short Nonfiction: Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

Little, Brown Book Group| 26 January 2021| 154 pages| 4*

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the focus is on short nonfiction.

I’ve watched TV programmes about Covid-19, seeing what it was like in a number of hospitals as the virus took hold in the UK, so a lot of the information in Rachel Clarke’s book, Breathtaking: Inside the NHS in a Time of Pandemic wasn’t new to me. But, I wanted to read this book to get an inside perspective on what it was like working in the NHS during the pandemic.

There have been so many fears that the NHS would be overwhelmed and reports criticising the way the government has dealt with the situation – and this is still the case now as winter approaches and the number of daily confirmed cases of coronavirus is still high, whilst hospital waiting lists for non-Covid-19 treatment remain high. Add to this there are now reports that doctors are saying that casualty departments are on the ‘edge of a precipice’, leading to dangerous levels of handover delays with patients forced to wait in ambulances for up to 11 hours outside hospitals. On TV I’ve seen the enormous queues of ambulances outside hospitals waiting to admit patients!

Rachel Clarke is a palliative care doctor and her book recounts her experiences during the first four months of 2020, when she worked on the Covid-19 wards in the Oxford University Hospitals system. Taken from her diary that she kept at the time it has an immediacy as she records her insomnia, her fears for her family and also the tremendous resilience, courage and empathy that she and the rest of the hospital staff had.

She tells the now familiar story about the PPE shortages, the lack of funding they experienced and criticises the government for their failure to act quickly enough – which I echo. Although it is a grim account, as I expected, it is also uplifting to know the care they took of their patients and the attentiveness to their patients’ needs despite the fact that many of the staff were not trained in intensive care and had never dealt with anything like this before.The way they had to prioritise patients is shocking, but I suppose inevitable given the lack of resources and staff.

She found that being a pandemic doctor was revelatory:

The crisis has undeniably revealed sweeping truths about social and economic inequalities, class divisions, global interconnectedness and the fact that our society’s most vital key workers were, and remain, among the lowest paid and the least empowered. Historians will dissect the issues for years to come. My revelations were about people. I learned from ward to ward, from bedside to bedside, paying meticulous attention to one human being and then another. I discovered how to distinguish what we absolutely cannot do without from what is really in the end, superfluous. (page 18)

This book is a snapshot, written at the time:

It depicts life and death, hope, fear, medicine at its most impotent and also at its finest, the courage of patients in enormous adversity, the stress of being torn between helping those patients and endangering your spouse and children, the long, fretful nights ruminating over whether the PPE you wear fits the science or the size of the government stockpile. I needed, I think, to take a stand with my pen and simply say: I was there. I have seen it, from the inside. I know what it was like. Here, with all its flaws and its inherent subjectivity, is my testimony. Make of it what you will. (pages 18-19)

Breathtaking records the compassion and kindness of numerous people, and pays tribute to both NHS staff and volunteers in dealing with such a distressing and immensely horrific situation.

Novellas in November: Short Nonfiction

Novellas in November is hosted by Cathy and Rebecca. This week the theme is short nonfiction and these are some I’ve read in previous years.
  1. Alive, Alive Oh and Other Things That Matter by Diana Athill (21 December 1917 – 23 January 2019). She was a British literary editor, novelist and memoirist who worked with some of the greatest writers of the 20th century at the London-based publishing company Andre Deutsch Ltd. This book contains her memories, thoughts and reflections on her life as she approached her 100th year, covering events from her childhood in the 1920s and 1930s, her post-war life, visits to Florence, and in the Club Mediterranee in Corfu in the 1950s, and the friends and lovers she has known upto 2009 when she moved into a home. The chapters follow on chronologically but are unconnected except for the fact that they demonstrate her love of life. And it is this love of life that is evident in her writing that makes it such a remarkable book. I loved it.
  2. Ink in the Blood: A Hospital Diary by Hilary Mantel, another short memoir. I read this in 2011 after Hilary Mantel’s talk at the Borders Book Festival at Melrose had been cancelled in the previous summer.  She had to cancel that because she wasn’t well – I didn’t know just how ill she was. Ink in the Blood reveals all – how she had surgery to remove an intestinal obstruction that ended up in a marathon operation, followed by intense pain, nightmares and hallucinations. Illness she found knocks down our defences, revealing things we should never see, needing moment by moment concentration on breathing, on not being sick and being dependent on others for your well-being. Writing was Hilary Mantel’s lifeline – it was the ink, as she wrote in her diary, that reassured her she was alive.
  3. James Herriot’s Cat Stories is a collection of ten stories clearly demonstrating his love of cats. In the introduction James writes that cats were one of the main reasons he chose a career as a vet. They have always played a large part in his life and and when he retired they were still there ‘lightening’ his days. This is a short book of 158 pages with illustrations by by Lesley Holmes.

I’ve recently read Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke and I’ll post a review later.

Nonfiction November: Week 2 Book Pairings

Week 2: (November 8-12) – Book Pairing with Katie at Doing DeweyThis week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story. 

Earlier this year I read the novel A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville and I’m pairing it with Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge by Michelle Scott Tucker, which I haven’t read yet.

Kate Grenville is one of my favourite authors, so I was very keen to read A Room Made of Leaves. 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. Her writing suits me – historical fiction, 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.

Whenever I read historical fiction I always want to know how much is fact and how much is fiction, how accurate it is. And so this novel intrigued me because Kate Grenville’s book begins with an editor’s note about ‘the ‘incredible discovery of Elizabeth Macarthur’s secret memoirs’ in a tin box containing old papers, revealing the real person behind the few letters she wrote home to her family and friends and a lot of ‘dull correspondence with her adult children’. Was this true, I wondered. So I turned to the back of the book to read Grenville’s Author’s Note and in that she clarifies that this is not history and, although the extracts from Elizabeth’s letters are from the letters of the real Elizabeth Macarthur, she has ‘taken some liberties in order to shape this work of fiction’. The old documents were Grenville’s ‘inspiration and guide’. In other words you have to bear in mind the epigraph, an actual quotation from one of Elizabeth’s letters: Believe not too quickly, a reminder that this is fiction.

It made me want to know more about the Macarthurs, and what was indeed their history, so I was delighted to find out that Kate Grenville references Michelle Scott Tucker’s biography: Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World as the standard biography in her Acknowledgements and I was even more delighted to see that it’s available as a ebook. So it is now in my Kindle and I’m keen to read it as soon as possible. I want to see what Michelle Scott Tucker has made of the same historical sources – history, after all, is an interpretation of the facts from the records, trying to explain what happened and why, dependent on available evidence. Fiction is more flexible and can fill in the gaps where the documentary evidence is lacking.