The Chunkster Challenge 2008

The aim of the Chunkster Challenge was to read 4 books over 450 pages long from 7 January to 20 December.  

I read one of the books that I initially chose:

  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusack (584 pages) which I did read. See here.

But I didn’t manage the other three, although I still intend to read them sometime:

  • The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (598 pages)
  • The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (575 pages)
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (529 pages) 

Instead I read:

  • Winter In Madrid, C J Sansom (530 pages) See here.
  • Revelation by C J Sansom (546 pages) See here
  • The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (645 pages) See here
  • The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates See here

It’s hard to decide which of these I enjoyed the most as they’re all so different, but the one that is most memorable is The Gravedigger’s Daughter; Joyce Carol Oates has been a favourite for a long time and this book is one of the best. C J Sansom has to be one of my favourite authors, with two books by him in the challenge but I didn’t think that The Forgotten Garden lived up to Kate Morton’s previous book The House at Riverton. I had hoped to finish the longest book I’ve ever read but I still have 174 pages left of Les Misérables to read, and that’s without the appendices – on The Convent and Argot!

The biggest drawbacks with reading chunksters are of course their weight and size. Les Mis is the worst to read in bed as not only is it such a fat, heavy book, but it is printed in a very small font. The best things about chunksters are that they are books that you can really get your teeth into and because they are so long the characters and plots are really well defined and the books almost become part of my life!

The Sunday Salon

Sunday SalonLast August I read The House at Riverton by Kate Morton and thought it was one of the best books I’d read in 2007. So it was with great anticipation that I started to read The Forgotten Garden. It starts off well, with a little girl in London in 1913 on a boat bound for Australia. The lady who took her to the boat has disappeared and the little girl is found alone on the Maryborough wharf, with no name and no family. All she can remember is that the name of the lady is the Authoress and she has a little white suitcase containing a book of fairy stories written by the lady.

The Forgotten Garden

The novel is about three women – Eliza, Nell and Cassandra and follows their lives from 1900 to 2005. Nell is the little girl in the opening chapter and the book reveals the story of her birth. Of course it’s not just as simple as that – there are several mysteries in this long book. It’s quite easy to read once you have got used to jumping from England in 1913 to Australia in 2005, and in and out of the 1930s and 1975 in both countries and back again to 2005 in England and Australia and sorting out the characters of the three women.

I was enjoying it and then I realised that I was reading a re-working of The Secret Garden, as Eliza is taken as a child of twelve to live with her aunt and uncle at Blackhurst Manor in Cornwall, just as Mary is taken to live with her uncle at Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors, both houses in isolated places, both girls finding it difficult to fit into their new surroundings, both with maids who help them settle in, both with walled gardens and secrets to be discovered. Even down to both having sickly cousins who stay in their rooms.

I was so disappointed that I stopped reading the book! But I picked it up again the next day and carried on. I worked out the ‘mystery’ quite easily and found the book rather predictable, which was also disappointing. Nell attempts to find out the truth about her parents and in 1975 travels to England, eventually finding Blackhurst Manor where the Mountrachet family used to live. After her death in 2005, Cassandra her granddaughter discovers she has been left a surprise inheritance, Cliff Cottage and its forgotten garden in Cornwall, now derelict.

It wasn’t just the predictability of the story I found a let down, I also had difficulty picturing the settings and working out the locations of the cottage, its garden, the maze and Blackhurst Manor even though I re-read their descriptions several times.

I read this book whilst on my recent travels along with The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, which I also found a bit disappointing – more about that some other time maybe. Other reading this week has been more enjoyable with The Fall of Troy by Peter Ackroyd and Wessex Tales by Thomas Hardy. I also finished reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. I first read this about 10 years ago and was a bit worried that I would find it a let down on re-reading it, but thankfully I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the next book up for discussion on Cornflower’s Blog on 12 July. For once I’ve read the book well in advance.

I’m also re-reading The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy for the Heart of a Child Challenge. A tale of the French Revolution, a time of terror and tension as the dashing Englishman rescues French aristos destined to death by guillotine. I loved this book as a child and so far it’s living up to my expectations.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief

I was not that keen on reading The Book Thief when I first heard about it. One reason, and this is quite contrary of me, I know, is that people were raving about it and that always makes me wonder whether a book can really live up to its reputation. The other reason was that I had the impression it was about the Holocaust, concentration camps and the Nazi persecution of the Jews and I would find it too heart-rending. Then I gave in and thought I’d better read it to see what all the fuss was about. It had been sitting on the book shelves unopened ever since I bought it until it was chosen as the next book to read in Cornflower‘s on-line book group.

Death is the narrator of the book. Oddly enough, I became fond of this character, Death, as the story progressed. Death is compassionate, commenting on man’s inhumanity to man and he is very overworked. The action takes place in Nazi Germany and there are some very moving, tense and emotional scenes. Overall though, the book is about ordinary German people and their experiences during the war, their reaction to the Fuhrer and their efforts to help their Jewish friends and acquaintances. As I was reading about how they survived during the air raids I was comparing it to how the British also coped as described in Our Longest Days. As you would expect, it was much the same. People in both countries suffered.

The “book thief” is Liesel Meminger who is nine at the start of the book in 1939. On her way to live with foster parents, Rosa and Hans Hubermann, she witnesses the death and burial of her brother and finds “The GraveDiggers Handbook”. This is the first book that became very important to Liesel. Her love of words leads to her acquiring more books with the help of her friend, Rudy. She steals a book from the Nazi book-burning fires and from the local mayor’s library, with the assistance of the mayor’s wife. The danger increases for Liesel and the Hubermanns when they shelter a young Jew, Max Vanderburg, in their basement. Liesel’s relationships with Rudy, Hans and Max are central to the story, as Death almost seems to stalk them. Terrible things happen in this book; the Nazis and the Hitler Youth Movement cast their sinister shadow, the people are starving, Jews are persecuted, people are whipped for helping them, and towns and cities are bombed and devastated.

Although this is a long book I read it very quickly; it is an easy book to read. The language is simple and straight forward. Some of the sentences are very short, almost staccato and fragmentary: “Door open, door shut. Alone again.” “The food.” “The carrots.” “I know. You know.” This jarred on me a bit but I suppose that writing like this does make the book easier to read and I was able to read it in just a few sessions. Still, I thought it was a disturbing, unsettling book and I found myself reading it completely absorbed in the story.

It also made me think of The Diary of Anne Frank, which she wrote whilst in hiding for two years with her family during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Her family was apprehended in 1944 and Anne Frank ultimately died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. This is a heartbreaking account. If you haven’t read it you really must!

Revelation by C J Sansom

I know who the murderer is ‘“ I’™ve finished Revelation!

I haven’™t written anything on this blog since Saturday, partly because we’™ve been staying with our son and his family and partly because I just had to finish reading Revelation. It’™s the fourth book in the Matthew Shardlake series. The first three are Dissolution set in 1537, Dark Fire set in 1540 and Sovereign set in 1541. I think they all stand alone but I like to read books in sequence. It’™s been a year since I read the third book and Revelation was well worth the wait. It’™s a long book full of intrigue, mystery and murder. (At 546 pages long it qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge.)

Revelation is set a few years later than Sovereign; the action takes place during March and April 1543. Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’™s fifth queen, has been beheaded and he has asked Catherine Parr to be his wife. She, understandably, is somewhat reluctant, fearful of what that may lead to, not to mention her involvement with Sir Thomas Seymour. This is a time of the struggle for power between religious reformers and reactionaries. Thomas Cranmer is still the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite opposition from Bishop Gardiner and Bishop Bonner, who was pursuing religious radicals, looking for heretics. The reformers are preaching that the Apocalypse was coming, inducing ‘œsalvation panic’, with people craving certainty that they are among those whom God has pre-ordained to be saved. Parliament is passing legislation to prevent the working classes and women from reading the new English Bible Thomas Cromwell (executed in 1540) had introduced. It’™s a time of change and uncertainty.

That’™s the political and religious scene in which Matthew Shardlake, a lawyer, finds himself when the murder of his old friend Roger Elliard, brings him back to the attention of Archbishop Cranmer. He is working on the case of Adam Kite, a teenage boy, who is imprisoned in the Bedlam hospital for the insane, helped by Guy Malton (previously a monk and now licensed as a doctor). Adam is a ‘˜self-hater’™ fearing that he is ‘˜unworthy of God’™s love’™. The question is, is he mad or possessed by the devil? Then more bodies are found and Matthew along with his assistant Barak joins forces with Gregory Harsnet, the London coroner is trying to find out who is committing the horrific murders.

I’™m not going to say any more about the plot. I was completely convinced of the reality presented in the book, the setting is clearly described (there are maps of the main scenes, north of the River Thames and of Westminster) and the characters are just so alive. I felt as though I was there, a spectator to everything that went on.

I particularly liked the information in the book on such topics as the state of medicine at the time, the treatment of various illnesses, how knowledge of human anatomy was discovered through post-mortems, challenging previously held beliefs. Mental illness for example was thought by some to be caused by an imbalance of humours in the brain but others were coming to think it was caused by physical disorders, such as tumours, in the brain and yet others thought it was possession by the devil, which must be driven out. There was the threat that religious-obsessives would be considered as heretics and condemned to be burned at the stake. (I found it interesting that the treatment of mental illness in the 17th century in read about in The Verneys was not much different from that in the 16th ‘“ see my post on The Verneys here.) I was fascinated by the idea of teeth set in wooden dentures, but squeamish at how the teeth were obtained and I was intrigued by the use of drugs, such as dwale (deadly nightshade) as an anaesthetic.

Another topic that fascinated me was the question of the religious beliefs of the fundamentalists. Just as Christian fundamentalists today seen signs of the end of the world, people in Tudor England were convinced that the Apocalypse was coming upon them. The Puritans were convinced of the literal truth of the Book of Revelation, accepting the violent destruction of those who were not ‘˜saved’™ without a qualm. It is of course, as the title indicates, the prophecies in the Book of Revelation that fuel the murders. Guy, next to Matthew my favourite character in the Shardlake series, looks on these subjects more compassionately. Talking of the contemporary scene he says that men have been

‘œThrown into a world, where the Bible is interpreted as literal facts, its symbols and metaphors forgotten, and fanatics react with equanimity to the blood and cruelty of Revelation. Have you ever thought what a God would be like who actually ordained and executed the cruelty that is in that book? A holocaust of mankind. Yet so many of these Bible-men accept the idea without a second thought.’

How do I rate this book? The plot had me turning the pages to see what happens next and find out who committed the murders, there was enough commentary on the political, religious and social scene for me to grasp what it was like living in Tudor England together with information on the location of the action that did not detract from the action but enhanced it, well-defined and believable characters and a fluent, readable style with a good balance between dialogue and description.

In a less analytical mode I’™d say, ‘œI loved it, loved it, loved it!’

It’™s hard to settle down now to another book, even though I’™ve plenty lined up waiting to be read. It’™s like that sometimes when I’™ve just finished a really good book. I’™m still reading Eat, Pray, Love, but I like to have more than one book on the go. I’™m behind with reading Les Miserables, so I might get back to that, but as Revelation ends with the news that Henry VIII finally married Catherine Parr in July 1543 I’™m really tempted to read Suzannah Dunn’™s The Sixth Wife to carry on reading more about Catherine Parr.

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?

Chunkster Challenge

I’™ve decided to sign up for another challenge to help me get through my TBR list. It’s to read big, fat books ‘“ or as the Challenge calls them ‘˜chunksters‘™. The books have to have 450+ pages and mine are well over that. The ones I have picked ‘“ but this may change as I like to read as the fancy takes me – are:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusack (584 pages)
The Meaning of Night by Michael Cox (598 pages)
The Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower (575 pages)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (529 pages)

It is hosted by So Many Books, So Little Time – so true!