Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

Review copy courtesy of the publishers Hodder and Stoughton. Paperback, 2008.Garden Spells has a touch of magic to it and it’s not just the sparkly glitter frosting on the book’s cover. It’™s a modern fairy tale/myth that captured my imagination right from the start. Maybe it’™s because there is an enchanted garden, in flower all year round, with a magic apple tree at its centre. Maybe it’™s because it has a warm, cosy ‘œonce upon a time’ feel and I needed something completely different from other books I’™ve read recently. Whatever it was this book, together with Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost (post on this book to follow), helped pull me out of the reading rut I’™d experienced after the high point of reading C J Sansom’™s Revelation.The Waverleys, considered by their neighbours as just a little bit weird, have lived in Bascom, North Carolina for generations. Ever since Sydney Waverley left home ten years previously Claire,her older sister has continued to live in the house, tend the garden and run a catering business using plants she has grown. She is kept busy, as

‘œall the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tree cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise the Ladies Aid ordered for their meetings once a month gave them the ability to keep secrets. The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms and rose-hip soup ensured that your company would only notice the beauty of your home and never the flaws. Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful. Honeysuckle wine served on the fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark. The nutty flavour of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, and the salads made with chicory and mint had you believing something good was about to happen, whether it was true or not.’

Claire is not the only Waverley with magic powers; her cousin, Evanelle gives people strange gifts, such as a rhinestone brooch, a ball of yarn, little packets of ketchup and tweezers, which they later find are just what they need. These magic powers have made Claire independent and her only contact with people is through her catering business. In addition, she is wary of becoming attached to anyone fearing that if she lets herself become emotionally involved she will get hurt and that they will leave her (her mother abandoned her and Sydney, leaving their grandmother to bring them up).

Even though it is essentially a comforting read there are serious issues within the story. Sydney returns to Bascom, with her five-year old daughter, Bay, leaving her partner, David in the dead of night, after suffering years of physical abuse. She has tried to leave him before, but he has always found her and forced her back. This time she is determined that he won’™t find her. Their arrival throws Claire off balance, even though she welcomes them into the house. Sydney’™s reappearance in Bascom sets ripples running through the neighbourhood, causing changes not just for Claire. Old friends are both pleased and horrified at her return.

There is also a newcomer to Bascom, Tyler Hughes, who has moved in to the house next door to Claire. He has seen her around and is immediately attracted to her, much to her discomfort and Claire’™s comfortable life is thrown into disarray. The apple tree in the Waverley garden is a very temperamental tree and has a habit of throwing its apples at people from its branches. Eating one of these apples affects people in strange ways. So when Tyler eats an apple that the tree has tossed over into his yard he has the most amazing dream.

Garden Spells is a book to enjoy and read quickly, its romantic elements verging on chick-lit, reminding me of Sophie Kinsella’™s books (which I also enjoy). I was also struck by the comparison (but not a strict parallel) with the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil at its centre, with the serpent persuading Eve to tempt Adam to eat the apple ‘¦

The author’s website has more information plus recipes of dishes using edible flowers mentioned in the book .This book qualifies as my first read in the Once Upon a Time II Challenge.

A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin

Happy Birthday to Ian Rankin. My choice for the Celebrate the Author Challenge in April is A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin whose birthday is today 28 April.

A Good Hanging is a collection of twelve short stories featuring Inspector John Rebus, set in Edinburgh. All the stories are concise and I think convey the character of Rebus; he is cynical and analytical, a lone worker, who drinks and smokes too much. None of the stories pose complex mysteries and are seemingly easily solved by Rebus. I did enjoy the book but it is less satisfying for me than a full length novel. I have several other Rebus books in line including Black and Blue, which promises to be ‘a first-rate and gripping novel’, according to the Sunday Times.

First published in 1992 it’s one of the earlier Rebus books. The first story in this book is called ‘Playback‘. Rebus is impressed by being able to phone your home phone ‘from the car-phone’ to get ‘the answering machine to play back any messages.’ You can tell from this that it’s rather different from current crime detection fiction. As the title indicates, solving the crime in this story hinges on phone messages. The police receive a phone call from the murderer confessing his crime. He panics and tries to flee, only to be caught as the police arrive on the scene of the crime. He then insists on his innocence. Rebus disentangles the puzzle even though this seems to be ‘the perfect murder’.

In ‘The Dean Curse‘ Rebus is reading Hammett’s novel ‘The Dain Curse‘, which he tosses up into the air disgusted by how far-fetched and melodramatic that book was, piling on coincidence after coincidence ‘corpse following corpse like something off an assembly line’, when he receives a phone call with news of a car bomb that had just gone off in Edinburgh. He cannot believe it has happened. It seems as though this is the work of terrorists, the bomb having all the hallmarks of an IRA bomb and it had gone off seconds after the car had been stolen. It seems to Rebus as if the coincidences in the Hammett story have nothing on his case. But there is more to this case than at first meets the eye.

My favourite in the book is the title story ‘Good Hanging‘ in which Rebus solves the crime through his knowledge of ‘Twelfth Night‘. It’s set during the Edinburgh Festival period, when the city is full of young people, theatrical people. A Fringe group, comprising a number of students are staging a play called ‘Scenes from a Hanging’ promising a live hanging on stage. The story starts with the discovery of a young man found hanging from the stage scaffold in Parliament Square. It appears to be suicide according to the note in his pocket ‘Pity it wasn’t Twelfth Night’. Rebus investigates and finds that all is not as it seems.

The other stories involve the discovery of a skeleton buried beneath a concrete floor, a Peeping Tom, and blackmailers. One story I particularly like is ‘Being Frank‘ about a tramp who overhears two men talking about a war that’s coming. He is well known for making up stories and informing the police of numerous conspiracies so they just laugh at him. But fearing the end of the world Frank confides in Rebus who eventually begins to suspect that this time Frank is not lying.

I see on Ian Rankin’s website that he has written the final Rebus book Exit Music. Another book to add to the book mountain.

The Sunday Salon – Travels in the Scriptorium

It’s been a good reading week here. I started and finished Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel and Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. It was with some relief that I finally finished Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Three very different books and I’m going to write separate posts on each of them. I’m behind with writing about these books – I just can’t keep up with my own reading. After doing the Page 123 meme on Friday I decided that I would read Travels in the Scriptorium next and I stuck to that even though Remember Me by Melvyn Bragg arrived on Saturday morning.

Yesterday was a beautiful day here and I sat for a while in the garden reading Paul Auster’s Travels In the Scriptorium. It’s a very short novel (130 pages) and I read it in one sitting. I found it to be an odd little tale about Mr Blank, an old man who wakes to find that he is alone in a room. He doesn’t know where he is, who he is or why he is in the almost empty room. At first it seems as this is the story about old age and memory, but as I read on I realised it is more than this. It’s metafiction, with a story, or rather stories within the story, posing a puzzle. Mr Blank spends his day looking at photos on the desk, reading an unfinished manuscript, thinking about his past and talking to the various people who visit him as the day progresses.

Travels in the Scriptorium is a slender book, written in beautiful but simple prose. I wasn’t sure what to expect, after all a scriptorium is a writing room in a monastery but having read it I think the clue to its contents is in the title.

If you’ve never read any of Auster’s books I suppose you could still enjoy this book, but you wouldn’t realise what it was all about and I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this book. If you like a novel to have everything explained and a complete ending with all the strands of the story neatly tied up then don’t read it either. I’ve only read two of Auster’s books – Oracle Night and The Book of Illusions and when I read that Anna, one of the characters in Travels had been married to David Zimmer light began to dawn – Zimmer is the main character in The Book of Illusions, but he wasn’t married to Anna. The title Travels in the Scriptorium is also the title of a film in The Book of Illusions, so obviously, I thought, these are not accidents  – Auster is doing this on purpose. It turns out that all the characters in Travels are characters from his other books.

The manuscript story is unfinished and Mr Blank is disgusted. He is told that a man named Trause is the author. Here is a hint I thought to the puzzle, as Trause is an anagram of Auster as well as being a character in Oracle Night, a character who is also an author. So, this book is about writing, about words and characters and the nature of authorship. As the narrator says of the characters

‘the paradox is that we, the figments of another mind, will outlive the mind that made us, for once we are thrown into the world, we continue to exist for ever, and our stories go on being told, even after we are dead.’

I think that it is not just the characters that continue to exist but also the authors – we can still read their words and explore what was in their minds through their books. Our interpretation may not be what the author intended (I read somewhere that the reader writes the text), but still I am fascinated by reading what (for example) Jane Austen wrote two centuries ago and what Paul Auster wrote two years ago.

I’m still thinking about Travels. If you’re a fan of Auster then you’ll read it. But is it a great book, a good book or just a book? Just for the fact that it entertained me and made me think I’m going to say it is a good book – but not a great book. I may re-read it sometime when I’ve read a few more of his novels.

This morning I’ve read some more of Les Miserables and have now finished Part One. It’s difficult to know what to write about this novel – it’s long, (nearly ten time longer than Travels), long-winded but compelling me to read on. I remember seeing a TV version some years ago and vaguely know the story. I remember in particular watching with horror after Fantine, desperate for money had sold her two front teeth. My reaction was just the same on reading about it.There’s a whole host of characters and the novel covers a broad sweep of French history in the 19th century. It’s the story of Jean Valjean the ex-prisoner who transformed himself into the respected Mayor Monsieur Madeleine and then is revealed as Valjean by the end of Part One. Part Two opens at Waterloo. I’m tempted to see the musical at the Queen’s Theatre this summer if I can get tickets.

That’s all for now as later we’re meeting some of the family and going on a bluebell walk. Heavy rain is forecast for today but so far there’s no sign of it – I hope it keeps fine for this afternoon.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth (published in the USA as Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance), John Murray Publishers Ltd, 2008, 355 pages).

I suppose you could call this book an ‘historical whodunit’. It’s set in 1889 – 1890, fin-de-siècle London and Paris and the mystery begins with Oscar Wilde finding the naked body of Billy Wood, a 16 year old boy in the candle-lit room in a small terraced house in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. Billy’s throat has been cut and he is laid out as though on a funeral bier, surrounded by candles, with the smell of incense still in the air. It’s a combination of fiction and fact, with both real and imaginary characters. Wilde with the help of his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard sets out to solve the crime. Sherard (the great grandson of William Wordsworth) who wrote poems, novels, biographies (including five of Oscar Wilde) and social studies is the narrator.

The story reads quickly (so quickly that I didn’t want to stop to make notes as I read) and is full of colourful characters such as Gerard Bellotti, who runs an ‘informal luncheon club for gentlemen’. Bellotti is

‘grossly corpulent’ giving the impression of ‘a toad that sits and blinks, yet never moves’ wearing ‘an orange checked suit that would have done credit to the first comedian at Collins’ Music Hall and on the top of his onion-shaped head of oily hair, which was tightly curled and dyed the colour of henna, he sported a battered straw boater.’

Wilde is a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories so much so that as the mystery is unravelled he picks up clues in the manner of Holmes, observing and deducing, exclaiming when questioned by Conan Doyle ‘Come, Arthur, this is elementary stuff -Holmes is where my heart is.’ I think it is this combination of fact and fiction that I enjoyed most in reading the book. I knew little about Wilde or Doyle and nothing about Sherard before reading it, but I think I learned a lot about all three people, about their characters, their views on life and love, and their works, as well as about the society in which they lived.

According to The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries website the book is peppered through with quotes from Wilde, or Brandreth’s versions of Wilde’s words, together with Brandreth’s own inventions. I couldn’t tell which was which, as I’ve only read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and seen a TV production of The Importance of Being Ernest, but it all seemed perfectly in character to me. I found the details of Wilde’s love for his wife Constance particularly interesting in contrast to his trial for gross indecency in 1895. In fact I came away from the book really liking Wilde and wanting to read more about him and by him. Fortunately the biographical notes at the end of the book give more details of works by and about Wilde, Conan Doyle and Sherard.

I didn’t find the mystery too difficult to work out, with lots of clues throughout the book, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. On the contrary it made it all the more pleasurable. The next book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death, is due out in the UK in May and in the USA, called Oscar Wilde and the Game of Murder, in September. Apparently there are seven more in the pipeline. That should mean I end up knowing an awful lot more about Oscar Wilde!

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, first published in 1911, my copy is a Penguin paperback published in 1958, 254 pages.

For the Heart of a Child Challenge

I read The Secret Garden several times as a child and the story has stayed with me ever since. For years my picture of the ideal garden has been a walled garden, just like the secret garden. The story can be read on different levels. As a child it seemed to me to be a straight forward story of Mary Lennox, orphaned after her parents died of cholera in India. Up until the age of nine she had lived a cosseted life looked after by servants, in particular her Ayah, ignored by her parents. After their death she was sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, on the bleak Yorkshire moors, with her uncle, who was a hunchback recluse, who took little interest in her. Soon after Mary’s arrival, her uncle went abroad leaving her again in the care of servants. These were very different from the servants in India and Mary struggled to adjust.

Soon after she discovers she is not the only child in the house, when she finds Colin, her cousin, a hypochondriac, unable to walk, who believes he won’t live to grow up. Both Mary and Colin are selfish children, hating both themselves and the adults in their lives. Both also hate the outdoors, but encouraged by Martha, her maid, Mary wanders in the gardens of the Manor house and comes across a walled garden, which apparently has no door. There seems no way to get inside it – until guided by a robin, she finds an old key buried in the earth. I loved the descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, the garden and how under the influence of Martha and her younger brother Dickon and even the grumpy gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, Mary blossomed as the year progressed along with the garden.

Reading it now I can see it is full of symbolism using nature, the Bible and myths, that I never noticed as a child. The image of the garden is used as both paradise lost and paradise regained. As the garden is nurtured and begins to blossom so do Mary and Colin, through springtime and into summer, culminating in the autumn when both are brought to full health. Dickon is accompanied by a young fox, a lamb, a crow and tame squirrels, reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi and plays his pipe to charm the animals, like Pan. His mother, Mrs. Sowerby, is a plain-speaking down-to-earth Yorkshire woman, full of common sense and wisdom, who through Dickon and Martha helps the children, feeding Mary and Colin with both her words and wholesome food. At times I thought the language becomes over sentimental and a bit syrupy (I never thought that as a child). But there are descriptions that still appeal to me, such as this description of the roses in the garden:

And the roses – the roses! Rising out of the grass, tangled round the sundial, wreathing the tree trunks, and hanging from their branches, climbing up the walls and spreading over them with long garlands falling in cascades – they came alive day by day, hour by hour. Fair, fresh leaves and buds – and buds – tiny at first, but swelling and working Magic until they burst and uncurled into cups of scent delicately spilling themselves over their brims and filling the garden air.


Above all it is the power of Magic that is invoked in this book. The magic of nature, that makes plants and people grow and develop, the magic of the power of positive thinking and prayer, of the healing power of the mind, and of laughter and love. Sometimes it seemed too simplistic and yet at the same time I was swept along with the sentiments and enjoying the experience of re-reading this book.

“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.’