Nonfiction November: Week 2 Book Pairing

I’m taking part in Nonfiction November again this year. It runs from Nov2 to Nov 30. Each Monday a link-up for the week’s topic will be posted at the host’s blog for you to link your posts throughout the week. 28 to Nov 30.

Week 2: (November 9-13) – Book Pairing (Julie @ Julz Reads): This 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.

I’ve recently read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, historical fiction inspired by Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son. It is a story of the bond between him and his twin sister, Judith.  Shakespeare isn’t the main character and he is never named in this novel, which really focuses on Ann Hathaway and her children. Little is actually known about her and she comes across to me in this book as a rather wayward, wild young woman when Shakespeare first met her, flouting convention and set on getting her own way, manipulating the people around her.

So, I’d like to know more about Ann Hathaway. Germaine Greer’s book, Shakespeare’s Wife explores what is known but I haven’t read it, so I don’t know how much is supposition and padding. I think it sounds interesting from the description on Goodreads:

Until now, there has been no serious critical scholarship devoted to the life and career of the farmer’s daughter who married England’s greatest poet. Part biography, part history, Shakespeare’s Wife is a fascinating reconstruction of Ann’s life, and an illuminating look at the daily lives of Elizabethan women, from their working routines to the rituals of courtship and the minutiae of married life. In this thoroughly researched and controversial book, Greer steps off the well-trodden paths of orthodoxy, asks new questions, and begins to right the wrongs done to Ann Shakespeare.

If you have read Shakespeare’s Wife I’d love to know what you think about it.

Top Ten Tuesday: Book Titles that Would Make Great Song Titles

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 Book Titles that Would Make Great Song Titles. These are all books I’ve read, so the links take you to my reviews. I have no idea who would sing these fictional songs, but they are all rather mournful. In my head I can hear them as slow, soulful songs.

  1. Awakening by Sharon Bolton
  2. Don’t Let Go by Harlan Coben
  3. Dreamwalker: the Ballad of Sir Benfro by J D Oswald (James Oswald)
  4. Endless Night by Agatha Christie
  5. Like This, For Ever by Sharon Bolton
  6. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski
  7. Losing You by Nicci French
  8. On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
  9. Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
  10. Watching You by Lisa Jewell

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide: a Novella

This is my first novella review for Novellas in November hosted by Cathy and Rebecca

It was the cover of The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide, translated by Eric Selland, that first caught my eye. As a cat lover how could I resist this book? It is only short, 146 pages but it packs so much within those pages. And there was a lot that struck chords with me.

It is a story of how a cat made itself at home with a couple in their thirties who lived in a small rented house in a quiet part of Tokyo. The opening chapter describes the house and its position on a little alleyway the couple called ‘Lightning Alley’ because of its frequent sharp turns that one sees in drawings of lightning blots – or, I imagine, of the one on Harry Potter’s forehead. The alleyway followed a twisting path between the extensive grounds of an old estate and the place they were renting. It had originally been a guesthouse of the old estate, where their landlady lived. There was a rickety gate in a wooden fence, that was the landlady’s side entrance and the tenants’ front gate. And just beyond the gate was a knothole. I couldn’t quite visualise it but after reading it a few times I gave up trying to picture the scene and the optical illusion, like a camera obscura, the knothole projected on the small window in the corner of the kitchen.

I simply moved on to the story of the cat the narrator noticed in their garden. Their neighbours’ house to the east, which because of the twists and turns of Lightning Alley, was a distance away from them so that they rarely met face to face. But they could hear their neighbours’ little boy often playing where the alleyway turned sharply. One morning he announced his intention to keep a stray cat, Chibi, and they could hear the tinkling of the cat’s little bell. At first the cat was cautious and just peeked inside their little house but eventually Chibi spent a lot of time with the couple coming and going as she pleased.

Chibi was a jewel of a cat. Her pure white fur was mottled with several lampblack blotches containing just a bit of light brown. The sort of cat you might see just about anywhere in Japan, except she was especially slim and tiny.

These were her individual characteristics – slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one’s legs. (page 11)

So, I wondered why the picture of the cat on the cover that caught my eye was different. I think the picture on the cover of the audio book is more like Chibi:

There’s not really much more to say about the story, except that is a collection of fragments – of events that gradually change the couple’s lives. Chibi becomes a source of joy to them both and they began to see the beauty around them. There are passages about Chibi’s activities – her agility, her unexpected ways and playfulness.

Having played to her heart’s content, Chibi would come inside and rest for a while. When she began to sleep on the sofa – like a talisman curled gently in the shape of a comma and dug up from the prehistoric archaeological site – a deep sense of happiness arrived as if the house itself had dreamed this scene. (page 14)

Hiraide’s description of nature is detailed – the garden of the large house in particular. And I was struck by his description of two dragonflies, copulating while flying, in formation like a bracelet ‘in the shape of a distorted heart.’

But then something happens that changes their lives again. Change over the passage of time is one of the main themes in this book. Others are about nature and the nature of belonging – who does Chibi belong to, were her visits to their home actually a homecoming or was her home really with the neighbours? This was one of the chords that resonated with me because my in-laws once had a little white cat, Mitzi, who went to live with one of their neighbours. The neighbours clearly thought she didn’t belong to them because although = they fed her and she lived with them they brought the vet bill to my in-laws for them to pay it.

And so the changes continued. The ending which gave me much pause (pun not intended) for thought, is ambiguous, a mystery left hanging for you to decide for yourself what had happened – inevitable, maybe.

I was curious about this book – is it fact or fiction? So, I looked online and I came across this article, about a book signing/discussion organised by the Japan Foundation at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation’s venue on Cambridge Street in Manchester. Takashi Hiraide explained that some of the novel including the location and living quarters for instance, are based on fact, although the novel is a mixture of reality and fiction.

He also explained that the novel is a Japanese ‘I’ novel and pointed out the problems in translating it into English. For example whereas in Japanese personal pronouns (such as ‘I’, ‘he and ‘she’) are not necessary in a sentence, in English they are. As a result the narrator, who in the novel is meant to be a detached observer, in the English translation sometimes becomes a character in the story, which explains the detached feeling I had whilst reading it. I was also interested to find out that Hiraide is influenced by modern art and that he regards book covers as an art form in themselves. So, the cover that first attracted me to the book was his choice (I guess).

I loved this novella – so different from other books I’ve read. It’s one of my To-Be-Read books that has been hiding in my Kindle for five years, until I looked to see if I had any novellas in e-book form.

Six Degrees of Separation – From The Dogs of Riga to The Mysterious Affair at Styles

It’s time again for Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

The chain this month is a wild card – start with the book you’ve ended a previous chain with, and continue from there (for those playing for the first time, start with the last book you finished reading). So my chain begins with The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell, the book that ended my chain in May this year. It’s an Inspector Wallander book. A little raft is washed ashore on a beach in Sweden. It contains two men, shot dead. They’re identified as criminals, victims of a gangland hit. Wallander’s investigation takes him to Latvia.

The First Degree – a book I bought on the same day as The Dogs of Riga in August 2018 from Barter Books in Alnwick. It’s another murder mystery:

A Killing of Angels by Kate Rhodes – the second book in her Alice Quentin series. It’s a psychological thriller. At the height of a summer heatwave, a killer stalks the City of London.The avenging angel leaves behind a scattering of feathers with each body – but why these victims? What were their sins?

The Second Degree – another book with ‘angel in the title:

The Dark Angel by Elly Griffiths, a Dr Ruth Galloway Mystery. I like Ruth and enjoy these books, even though they are written in the present tense, which I can find irritating. This one is set in Italy. It’s the 10th Dr Ruth Galloway Mystery and the first one to be set in Italy. I like the mix of archaeology, mystery and crime fiction in Elly Griffiths’s books and also the continuing story of Ruth and the other regular characters.

The Third Degree – another Ruth Galloway mystery:

The first Ruth Galloway mystery I read is The Crossing Places. It’s an interesting mix of investigations into a cold case – the disappearance of Lucy, a five year old girl ten years earlier and a current case of another missing four year old girl. Are they connected and just how does the discovery of a child’s bones from the Iron Age fit in? It’s set in Norfolk  in winter with its immense skies and its remoteness, treacherous mud flats, marshlands and driving rain. Parts of the story involving quicksand reminded me of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.

The Fourth Degree – quicksand:

In Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone Rosanna Spearman drowns in quicksand on the marshes. It’s about the theft of a large diamond, originally stolen from a statue of an Indian God and said to be cursed. Collins uses several narrators to tell the story, one of whom is Sergeant Cluff, the detective who loves roses. He leaves the mystery unsolved, but a year later, the culprit is revealed. Years ago I watched a TV dramatisation and the images of the Indians, the jewel, the shifting sands and Sergeant Cuff have remained in my mind ever since.

The Fifth Degree – a book about a real detective who Wilkie Collins used as the model for Sergeant Cluff:

In The Suspicions of Mr Whicher Kate Summerscale describes how writers like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins used real life police detectives as models in their novels – for example Bleak HouseThe Moonstone, and The Woman in White. This is nonfiction about the brutal murder of Saville Kent, aged three, with all the suspects of a classic murder mystery – the original country house murder. 

The Sixth Degree – another country house murder mystery:

One of my favourite Agatha Christie novels The Mysterious Affair at Styles, her first novel. In it she created Hercule Poirot, the famous Belgian detective and introduced Captain Hastings and Inspector Japp. Old Mrs Inglethorp is found dying in her bedroom and although by the end of the book I guessed who had murdered her, I was completely bamboozled most of the way through the book by all the clues and false trails.

The links in my chain are all murder mysteries of one type or another, taking me from Sweden and Latvia to a country house somewhere in England.

Next month (December 5, 2020), we’ll begin with a book that is celebrating its 50th birthday this year – Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I’ve not read this book, but the title, with my name in it, intrigues me. I may have to read it!

Throwback Thursday: 5 November 2020

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

One of the best books I’ve read is Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. I read it in November 2007.

Here is an extract from my review:

In essence, the novel recounts the lives of two couples who first met during the Depression in 1930s America and the joys and difficulties they encounter throughout their lives. Larry Morgan is the narrator and the events are seen through his eyes. Both he and Sid Lang have jobs in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin and their lives are intertwined from the moment they meet, when both their wives are pregnant. At the start of the novel we are told that Charity, Sid’s wife is dying. Sally and Larry have travelled to Battell Pond in Vermont for a reunion with the Langs. Sally is in a wheelchair and from that point Larry looks back over their lives.

Click here to read the rest of this review

Nonfiction November 2020: Week 1 – My Year in Nonfiction

Nonfiction November begins this week. Each Monday a link-up for the week’s topic will be posted at the host’s blog for you to link your posts throughout the week.

 Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction (Leann @ Shelf Aware): Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

I love reading non fiction but it takes me much longer to read than fiction, so it’s only been 11% of my total reading so far this year. And during this strange year I’ve found it hard to concentrate on reading, and even less motivated to write about what I’ve read. Reading nonfiction always takes me longer than fiction because of the detail involved but this year it’s been taking me even longer than usual.

I like to vary my reading but tend to lean towards reading memoirs, biographies and history. This year I’ve also been interested in learning not just about Covid-19 but also about the history of disease and its impact.

It’s hard to say which one is my favourite as they’re all so different, but Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies, which I read in February, entertained me the most. And if you like history, and biographies I can definitely recommend The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley, which gave me a different perspective on Queen Victoria. Louise reminded me a bit of Princess Margaret and also of Princess Diana – she really had an interesting and unconventional life.

These are the books I read and one I’m currently reading. The links on the titles below take you to my reviews on the books:

Happy Old Me by Hunter Davies, the third book of his memoirs, written when he was in his eighty-second year, after the death of his wife, author, Margaret Forster. It is part memoir, part self-help, as he got to grips with being old and living on his own. He writes openly and frankly, with a sense of humour and a zest for life. I really enjoyed it. Hunter Davies is a writer and journalist who has written more than 30 books, covering biographies, novels, children’s novels. These include the only authorised biography of The Beatles, many works on the Lake District, and Confessions of a Collector.

Writing Wild by Kathryn Aalto – part travel essay, literary biography, and cultural history. A fascinating book about 25 women writers covering two hundred years of women’s history through nature writing, including natural history, environmental philosophy, country life, scientific writing, garden arts, memoirs and meditations and does not aim to dismiss men’s contributions. 

The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter by Lucinda Hawksley – a detailed biography about Victoria’s sixth child – her fourth daughter, born on 18th March 1848. There is so much detail about her life in this book, packed with intrigues, scandals and secrets. She had a difficult childhood, disliked and bullied by her mother and she often rebelled against the restrictions of life as a princess. Louise was unconventional, generous and charming to people she liked. She was a sculptor and several scandals arose about her, rumours of an illegitimate child and of her love affairs. The mysteries are still unresolved as Louise’s files in the Royal Archives are closed.

Blue Tits in My Nest Box by David Gains – this is a short book, packed with information. I bought it after my husband bought a new blue tit box – one with a camera. It gave us enormous pleasure watching a pair of blue tits make a nest in the box, lay eggs and feed the chicks and then fledge.

And Now For the Good News by Ruby Wax – written clearly in a breezy conversational style and covering a large amount of information. She emphasises the importance of compassion and kindness, of community and on working for the good of all. Above all she focuses on the benefits of mindfulness and on positive experiences.

The Virus in an Age of Madness by Bernard-Henri Levy – review to follow.

The Pandemic Century by Mark Honigsbaum – beginning with the Spanish Flu in 1918 this is a fascinating account of 100 years of pandemics. Review to follow.

I’m currently reading For the Record by David Cameron – his autobiography. I rarely read about politics, so this is a change for me. I’m interested to find out his views on the EU and Brexit, but haven’t got up to that yet. I never thought I’d say this, but I’d prefer the news to be full of Brexit talk instead of Covid-19!

By participating in Nonfiction November I’m hoping this will encourage me to read more nonfiction rather than picking up the next novel to read and I’m looking forward to seeing what others recommend.

The Searcher by Tana French

Penguin| 5 November 2020| 400 pages| Review copy| 5*

I enjoyed The Searcher very much. For the most part this standalone mystery novel moves quite slowly, but it held my attention right from the beginning. It certainly isn’t a book to rush through, rather it’s one to savour. The main characters are Cal Hooper and thirteen-year old Trey Reddy living in Ardnakelty, a remote Irish village. After twenty five years in the Chicago police force, Cal has recently moved to the village, wanting to build a new life after his divorce. He is a loner and wants a quiet life in which nothing much happens. But he finds himself getting involved in the search for Brendan, Trey’s older brother who had gone missing from home.

Cal is a methodical man, slowly doing up his run-down cottage and getting to know the locals – his neighbour Marty, Noreen who runs the village shop, her sister Lena and above all, Trey. I liked the slow build up to the mystery, and I loved Tana French’s beautiful descriptions of the Irish rural landscape. It’s the sort of book I find so easy to read and lose myself in, able to visualise the landscape and feel as if I’m actually there with the characters, watching what is happening.

But this is no ‘cosy’ crime fiction novel. Trey is like a dog with a bone and won’t let Cal give up when it looks as though they will never discover why Brendan left and what had happened to him. I realised after a while what could have happened to Brendan, but I hadn’t foreseen the twists and turns in this book, one of which really surprised me. The ending is terrific. The tension builds and builds as Cal and Trey find themselves in danger. Above all, it is about family relationships, responsibility and friendship. It is atmospheric, spellbinding, and compelling reading. Tana French is a great storyteller.

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

My Friday Post: Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses by Georges Simenon

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

Maigret and the Reluctant Witnesses is one of the novellas I included in my Novellas in November post. It has 172 pages and is Simenon’s 53rd Inspector Maigret book, first published in 1959.

It begins:

‘You haven’t forgotten your umbrella, have you?’

‘No.’

The door was about to shut, and Maigret was already turning towards the stairs.

‘You’d better wear your scarf.’

His wife ran to get it unaware that this little remark would leave him out of sorts for some time, melancholy thoughts churning through his brain.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

My job is to look for the truth, and that is what I’m doing. Your presence in fact would incline me not to look very far, because it’s very unusual for the relatives of a murder victim to send for a lawyer before they can even be questioned by the police.

Blurb:

When the head of a powerful Parisian family business is murdered in his bed, Maigret must pick apart the family’s darkest secrets to reveal the truth.

“The curious thing was that there seemed to be no grief here, only a strange dejection, a kind of uneasy stupor…”

Maigret is called to the home of the high-profile Lachaume family where the eldest brother has been found shot dead. But on his arrival, the family closes ranks and claims to have heard and seen nothing at the time of the murder. Maigret must pick his way through the family’s web of lies, secrets, and deceit, as well as handle Angelot, a troublesome new breed of magistrate who has waded into the case. And it’s the estranged black sheep of the family, Veronique, who may hold the key to it all with her knowledge of the depths to which the family will sink to protect their reputation.

Novellas in November

Although I’ll be taking part in Nonfiction November I’ve been wondering whether to join in with Novellas in November, a month long event co-hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of BookishBeck. Their definition of a novella is loose – it’s based on word count rather than number of pages – but they suggest aiming for 150 pages or under, with a firm upper limit of 200 pages. Any genre is valid. Each week has a theme:

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

So, I’ve been looking on my TBR shelves and found these novellas – a mix of genres:

I don’t expect I’ll read all of these – but I should be able to read one or two, maybe three?

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

I read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson at the end of September and it is one of the books that’s in my ‘to be reviewed pile’, which is getting far too big, as I keep reading book after book without writing about them!

About the book:

It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a “haunting”; Theodora, the lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. (Goodreads)

This is a horror story, but thank goodness there is no gore. Instead it is macabre and has a chilling atmosphere. It’s more of a psychological study than a horror story and as such I don’t think it’s as good or as terrifying as her later book, We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Dr. Montague, a doctor of philosophy with a keen interest in the supernatural and psychic manifestations had been looking for a ‘haunted’ house to investigate all his life. So, when he heard the stories about the strange goings on at Hill House he decided he would spend three months living there and see what happened, and he set about finding other people to stay there with him.

Eleanor is the main character in the book, next to the House itself, and what happens is told from Eleanor’s point of view. As a child Eleanor had once seemed to activate a poltergeist, although she doesn’t remember that. As an adult she had spent eleven years looking after her invalid mother and it had left her a lonely, embittered spinster of thirty two. After her mother died she sees Dr. Montague’s invitation to spend the summer at Hill House as something she had been waiting for all her life, an opportunity to change her life. Theodora is not at all like Eleanor – her ‘world was one of delight and soft colors’ and after arguing with her friend with whom she shared an apartment, she accepted Dr. Montague’s invitation too. The third person to accept was Luke, the nephew of the owner of Hill House, who would one day inherit the House. He was a liar and also a thief.

These four people arrived at Hill House where they were met by the Dudleys – Mr Dudley, the surly caretaker and his dour wife, the housekeeper. Neither of them live in the house but having told the guests which rooms they were to sleep in, and the arrangements for meals, they leave them alone at night. They leave before it gets dark.

Eleanor realises she should have turned back at the gate and a voice inside her tells her to ‘get away from here, get away.’ There are stories about the tragedies connected with the house, scandal, madness and a suicide – when a girl hanged herself from the turret in the tower. Dr Montague believes

the evil is in the house itself and that it has enchained and destroyed its people and their lives, it is a place of contained ill will.

Strange things happen, doors open themselves, the walls and floors are at odd angles, the rooms all connect so Eleanor and the others lose their sense of direction and get lost, the rooms they want to find eluding them. There are places where there are ‘cold spots’, and strange noises scare them at night. The tone shifts from the bright sunlight outside to the chill and foreboding of the house. Nothing is what it first appears to be and as I read on I felt I was sinking into the story in an unpleasant way – Eleanor becomes increasingly unstable and I began to realise that she is an unreliable narrator. The story took several ambiguous turns, so that I was not quite sure what was really happening. Was the house really haunted or was it all an effect of what was going on in their minds, or was it all just in Eleanor’s fevered imagination?

The book is well written, full of confusion and misdirection. There are moments of pure fear, a sense of excitement, friendship and even humour with the arrival of Dr Montague’s wife and her pompous friend Arthur Parker, and their ridiculous efforts with a ‘planchette’, a device similar to a Ouija Board. I thought was an odd interlude in the story, and not really necessary. The best parts are, I think, the descriptions of Hill House – the dark horror at the centre of the story.

No human eye can isolate the unhappy coincidence of line and place which suggests evil in the face of a house, and yet somehow a manic juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky turned Hill House into a place of despair, more frightening because the face of Hill House seemed awake, with a watchfulness from the blank windows and a touch of glee in the eyebrow of a cornice. …

It was a house without kindness, never meant to be lived in, not a fir place for people or for love or for hope. Exorcism cannot alter the countenance of a house; Hill House would stay as it was until it was destroyed. (pages 34 – 35)