“It is impossible to read too much” – Virginia Woolf

Catching up with books I read in January and February

We’re already into March and I still haven’t got round to writing about all the books I’ve read so far. I’ve read 16 books in total. Looking back at 2007 I’d also read 16 books and that was when I was when I had a full-time job, so being retired hasn’t resulted in more time to read books!

These are the books I haven’t written about:

The Man in the Picture: a Ghost Story, Susan Hill
This was a Christmas present. It’s a small book – in size and in length and I read it very quickly at the beginning of January. It starts with great promise of a sinister ghost story, set partly in Cambridge and partly in Venice. The narrator is having a meal with his old college professor one bitterly cold January evening, listening to a strange tale of a Venetian painting, of death and damnation. It’s really a novella and I was a bit disappointed that it was so short and although there is a good build up of atmosphere – dark places, a mysterious isolated country house and panic and terror in Venice – it didn’t send shivers down my spine.

I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
I don’t think I can do justice to this beautiful book in just a few words. Cassandra Mortmain is the narrator. She lives in a tumbledown castle miles from anywhere, with her family. There is her beautiful older sister, Rose, her once glamorous stepmother Topaz, her little brother Thomas and her eccentric father, who once wrote a novel. I love the opening of the book: ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.’

It’s written in such a seemingly simple style, but it captures so well the innocence and naivety of youth and hope for the future. It’s just, well, so English. I first read it as a teenager and it didn’t fail to live up to my memories of it. Definitely a book to re-read.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
This is a book that somehow I have never read until now. From the back cover I learnt that this is Mark Twain’s most popular book and I suppose the story is well known, although I knew nothing of it. I was pleasantly surprised how much I enjoyed this book, from the episode of the whitewashed fence and the ordeal in the cave to the trial of Injun Joe. It’s an amusing tale with sombre undertones of the realities of adult life. A tale of superstitions, murder and revenge, starvation and slavery.

The Ropemaker, Peter Dickinson
I moved from one fantastic children’s book to another. This time by a modern author. This is truly a fantastic story of sorcerers, witches, magic and mystery. Put simplistically it’s a story about Tilja, Tahl and their respective grandmother and grandfather who are on a journey to save their homes from destruction. On a deeper level it’s about saving a way of life and relationships between people, about growing up, being rejected and feeling the responsibilities of power. If you like the tales of the power of magic and above all the mysteries of time – ‘the great rope of time‘ then you will like this book.

The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett – I shall write a separate post on this book.

A God Divided, Christopher Catherwood I only just finished reading this a few days ago and I need to think about it before putting down my thoughts. It’s sub-titled ‘Understanding the differences between Islam, Christianity and Judaism’.

The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster

My Celebrate the Author Challenge book for February was going to be one by Amy Tan or Alice Walker, who have birthdays in February. However, I was reading The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster, whose birthday is also in February, so I changed my list. That’s a good thing about this challenge – I don’t have to stick with the books I originally thought I was going to read. Somehow there is an obstacle in my mind about challenges. I love the idea of them and deciding what to read but when it gets to the time I’m ‘supposed’ to read a book for some strange reason I don’t want to read it. After all I’m reading for pleasure and I like to read as and when the fancy takes me – not to a fixed programme.


From the title The Book of Illusions I expected to be deceived, that people and events would not be as they seemed and I was not disappointed. This book is full of illusions. It tells the stories of two men, David Zimmer, a professor whose wife and two sons were killed in a plane crash and Hector Mann, a silent movie star who disappeared mysteriously in 1929. David is plunged into depression and ‘lived in a blur of alcoholic grief and self-pity’ until he watched a clip from one of Hector’s films. It made him laugh. He became obsessed with Hector, the man in the white tropical suit, with a thin black mustache, which Hector used as an ‘instrument of communication’, speaking a ‘language without words, its wiggles and flutters are as clear and comprehensible as a message tapped out in Morse code – the mustache monologues.’ In typical silent movie style Hector with his slicked-back hair, thin and greasy little mustache and white suit is the target and focal point of every mishap.

David takes leave of absence from the university and studies Hector’s films, eventually writing a book about him, intrigued by his disappearance. Then he receives a letter from Hector’s wife, in which she reveals that Hector is alive and wants to meet David before he dies. He asks for proof that Hector is indeed alive. The rest of the novel reveals what happened to Hector and why he disappeared, in a series of melodramatic incidents. It’s a tense tale as David accompanied by Alma, directed by Hector to persuade David to visit him, rushes to the Blue Stone ranch in New Mexico, where he finds Hector on his deathbed, guarded by Frieda his wife who seems to resent David’s presence.

There are stories within stories; subterfuge, crime, shootings, issues of identity, love, death, disguises and deception abound in this book. A few quotes give the flavour:

‘The world was an illusion that had to be re-invented every day.’

‘I was writing about things I couldn’t see any more, and I had to present them in purely visual terms. The whole experience was like a hallucination.’

‘The world was full of holes – once on the other side of one of those holes, you were free of yourself, free of your life, free of your death, free of everything that belonged to you.’

‘Life was a fever dream – reality was a groundless world of figments and hallucinations, a place where everything you imagined became true.’

‘If I never saw the moon, then the moon was never there.’

Truly a book of illusions – about films that are in themselves illusions, the illusion that we can know another person, that there is a future, illusions about love, and identity – it moves in and out of reality. There are many layers to this novel; it’s a detective story with gothic overtones, a love story and a novel about the passing of the 20th century, ending as the last weeks of the century approach, that century which ‘no one in his right mind will be sorry to see end.’ It’s a circular story as well, ending with the hope that it ‘will start all over again.’

Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

This was one of the best books I read in 2007. Philip Reeve is a new author to me and I first read about him on Ann’s blog. Here Lies Arthur is an adventure story, set in Britain in AD 500. I have always been fascinated by the legend of King Arthur and this book tells his story, casting a new and original slant on the ‘facts’. Very little historical evidence has survived to give concrete information about life in Britain from the fifth to the sixth centuries. The picture Reeve paints is of a turbulent and harsh world, with Arthur as a war-leader in a land where opposing war-bands fight for supremacy. Arthur is not the romantic hero of legend but a dangerous, quick-tempered man, ‘solid, big-boned with a thick neck and a fleshy face. ‘A bear of a man.’

Merlin is in this story too, not the magician of legend but Myrddin, a singer of songs and a story-teller par excellence, whose tales convince people of Arthur’s supremacy and power – the King That Was and Will Be. With the help of Gwyna, a young girl whose home has been ransacked and burnt, Myrddin works his own kind of magic on people, eager to believe in miracles, the old gods and spirits, the Lady of the Lake and the significance of the sword, Excalibur called Caliburn in this book.

Gwyna, disguised as a boy acts as Myrddin’s servant as they travel with the war-band. Then as it becomes difficult to continue with the disguise Myrddin sends her to Gwenhwhfar’s household to act as a spy. As in the legend Gwenhwhfar is not faithful to Arthur. Other characters in the legends are interwoven into the story, most memorable is Peredur, Sir Perceval of Round Table fame and the hero of one of the stories in the Mabinogion.

As Gwyna matures she takes on the role played by Myrddin, spinning tales of her own, giving meaning to his life and death. It’s the stories that matter, with their magical enchantment. We can still hope that Myrddin’s Arthur will one day return, ‘the wisest and best king they had ever heard of. You can’t blame people for wanting to believe there’d been a man like that once, and might be again.’

Gwyna ends the story with the tale of the ship carrying Arthur to ‘an island in the west’ where ‘he lies sleeping, healed of all his wounds. And he’ll wake one day, when our need of him is bad enough, and he’ll come back to us. And the name of that ship is called, Hope.’

The stories of course are made up of words and what a spell Reeve has woven with his words. The names and place names conjure up such memories and visions of the time when people in Britain spoke a language similar to Welsh and there is a list at the back of the book with a guide to how they might have been pronounced. I kept referring to the guide as I read along, saying the names out loud and letting the sounds resonate within my head.

It may be sentimental, but this is what I found irresistible in this book, the mixture of fact and fantasy, realism and enchantment, and the importance of story to encourage and inspire people. It brings the legends to life.

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?

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.

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.

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?

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 ‘œone 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 ‘“ ‘œJohn Brown’™s body lies a’™mouldering in the grave ‘¦‘, Cumberland Gap, over the Mississippi ‘“ another song in my head, this time Paul Robeson’™s ‘œOl 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.

NB see more Christmas titles here – Suggest a Christmas Title.

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, and 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.

 

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 relationships. 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.