From The Stacks Challenge

The Overdue Books Challenge came to an end on 31 January 2008. The idea was to read 5 books from those you had already purchased, had been meaning to get to and haven’t read before. There was to be no going out and buying new books and no getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays.

The books I chose were:

Half a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Adichie
Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bowers
The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson
Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers

On the first count I didn’™t do too well because I only read two of these books, namely The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson, which I wrote about on 13 December 2007 and Winter in Madrid by C J Sansom, which I wrote about on 30 January 2008.

Although I started off quite well it wasn’™t long before I began to buy more books so I failed dismally on the second count. Still, I’™m pleased that I did read at least two books from my To Be Read List, so I’™m counting it as a mini success and I will read the other books this year.

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.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam and The Photograph by Penelope Lively

Old Filth tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, variously known as Eddie, The Judge, Fevvers, Master of the Inner Temple and Teddy. Not a dirty old man, he is ‘œspectacularly clean. You might say ostentatiously clean.’ Filth is his nickname standing for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He was born in what was then Malaya and sent home to England as a small child of five. The story goes backwards and forwards in time telling of his childhood at boarding school, then after Oxford he became a barrister and eventually a Judge on the circuit in Hong Kong. The book starts with Old Filth aged 80 living on his own in Dorset after the death of his wife, Betty. His near neighbour is Terry Veneering, also a retired lawyer he had known and detested in Hong Kong. He and Terry end up unexpectedly spending Christmas together. I was hooked straight away and read on eagerly.

As Filth begins to look back on his life, he becomes anxious to contact old friends and relations and as he contacts these people the story of his life emerges. He relives their times together, tries to make amends and sees events in a new light. There are many surprises before Filth comes to terms with his life and widowhood. It’™s a gentle book, full of humour and heartbreak.

The Photograph was the first book I read this year and I raced through it eager to find out why Kath was holding hands with a man who wasn’™t her husband, Glyn. After her death, Glyn comes across a photograph inside an envelope on which Kath had written DON’™T OPEN ‘“ DESTROY. It had been taken many years and on close inspection Glyn realises the man is his brother-in-law, Nick.

Glyn, a TV history researcher, infuriated by the photograph and the discovery of her involvement with Nick sets out to discover more. He becomes obsessed with his search as it becomes obvious how little he knew about Kath and her life.

I have always found Penelope Lively’™s books full of interest, easily readable, peopled with believable characters and this one is one of her best. It’™s about relationships, love and fidelity, grief and loss and the power of memory, all topics that for me made this book compelling reading.

Two excellent books.

Heart of a Child Challenge

I really shouldn’t be entering another challenge, but I just can’t resist this one. It’s being run by Becky at Becky’s Book Reviews – see her post on this challenge here.

The challenge is to read 3 to 6 books between February 1, 2008 and July 14, 2008, choosing from books and authors that you discovered, loved, or adored as a child. Anything and everything that you read through the age of 18 would qualify.

The books I will be choosing from are:

  • Mr Blossom’s Shop by Barbara Euphan Todd.
  • Heidi by Joanna Spyri
  • The Secret Garden by Francis Hodgson Burnett
  • What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge
  • The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
  • The Gloriet Tower by Eileen Meyler

These were all favourites. I may have to add Heidi Grows Up and Heidi’s Children and also What Katy Did Next.

3rd Annual Brigid in Cyberspace Poetry Reading

I found this on Table Talk’s blog.

WHAT: A Bloggers (Silent) Poetry Reading
WHEN: Anytime February 2, 2008
WHERE: Your blog
WHY: To celebrate the Feast of Brigid, aka Groundhog Day
HOW: Select a poem you like – by a favorite poet or one of your own – to post February 2nd.

See here for more details.

Not knowing what Groundhog Day is I looked it up on Wikipedia. If a groundhog (also known as a ground squirrel, woodchuck or marmot) emerges from its burrow on February 2 and doesn’t see its shadow it’s a sign that winter is ending, but if it does see its shadow that’s a sign that winter is still here and the groundhog goes back to its burrow.Winter then comntinues for 6 more weeks.

No sign of a groundhog here today (or any other day) but there are signs that winter is ending in this part of Britain, if not further north where there have been severe snow storms. I thought this poem is a reminder to slow down and enjoy life.


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies (1871 – 1940) was a Welsh poet, known as ‘The People’s Poet’ and a ‘Super-Tramp’. See Welsh Heroes for more information.

Dante’s Florence

I’™ve never ever had any inclination to read Dante’™s Divine Comedy before, but I’™ve now ordered a copy from Amazon. This is because I have enrolled on a course called Dante’™s Florence. My initial interest was Florence not Dante. We have had some beautiful holidays in Italy; the last one (in 2000) was near Florence and then we only had one day in Florence itself. I loved Francesco da Mosto’™s TV series on Italy and have wanted to go back to see more of the country ‘“ in particular Florence and Venice. So when a friend said she was taking a course on Dante’™s Florence I jumped at the chance to find out more.

It was the first session yesterday and I really enjoyed it. This is the description of the course: ‘œStudying Dante could not be more divine! Experience the Florence of Dante’™s day, including the art and architecture and the poet’™s relationship with his native city as conveyed in his writings.’ My impression of Dante’™s Inferno was that it is long and difficult and this was reinforced when the tutor said that most people who read The Divine Comedy manage to read through Purgatory and Hell, but few reach Paradise. It’™s not necessary to read it for this course, but now I want to know more.

It’™s only a six week course and covers a lot of topics including Florentine art and architecture of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Dante’™s relationship with Florence with reference to The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova, and his legacy in art and literature.

Dante’™s Florence was a much smaller city than today, but there are still some buildings from that period. I was pleased that I had visited some on our visit in 2000, in particular the Baptistry. This was built in the 11th and 12th centuries and Dante was baptised there in 1265. I remember sitting in the Baptistry, gazing with wonder and admiration at the magnificent ceiling decorations in its dome, and walking on the ancient mosaic floor. I have always been fascinated by mosaics, the intricate patterns and marvelled at their composition.

Dante loved learning, hunting and sport, was involved in the struggle for power between the Church and the State, and fought in the Battle of Campaldino in 1289. The great love of Dante’™s life was Beatrice Portinari, who he met when he was nine and she was eight. They never married. Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday shows him gazing at her as she passes by ignoring him.

I hope we will be looking at the Pre-Raphaelite paintings when the tutor discusses Dante’™s legacy to art, as one of my favourite paintings is Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Dante wrote La Vita Nuova in despair at Beatrice’™s death and we’™ll be studying that next week.

Quirky – Booking Through Thursday

This week’s question is suggested by (blogless) JMutford:


Sometimes I find eccentric characters quirky and fun, other times I find them too unbelievable and annoying. What are some of the more outrageous characters you’ve read, and how do you feel about them?

I take ‘quirky’ to mean characters that are odd, who act in unexpected ways, are a bit peculiar or different, maybe a bit outrageous or unusual in some way. They’re the type of character that makes a book either very good or boringly bad. It really depends on the situation and whether they fit into the story or are there just for effect.

There are so many characters that can be described as quirky but one that came to my mind as I read the question is Alice in Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth. She is certainly eccentric and peculiar, nothing she does is what people expect of her. The book starts off: ‘The madwoman in the attic was standing at the window.’

Her neighbours think she is simple, strange and definitely mad and are outraged by what she says and does. It’s a bizarre story mainly seen through Alice’s mind which because she lives mainly in the world of books is a very strange place indeed. It’s funny, well ludicrous at times, full of literary and musical references and I got lost in it for hours.