The Sunday Salon Secondhand Books

One of my favourite bookshops is Barter Books in Alnwick, so a trip there is always a treat. We were actually on our way to visit friends in Lancashire but stopped for a coffee in the shop, which is in a converted railway station, absolutely full of all kinds of books. I didn’t have any books in mind and just browsed the shelves, finding these, all in great condition:

  • An Omnibus edition of Wycliffe by W J Burley – Wycliffe and the Last Rites and Wycliffe and the House of Fear. I haven’t read any of the Wycliffe books before but if these two are anything to go by I’ll be looking for more. They are murder mysteries set in Cornwall where Burley lived. He was a schoolmaster until he retired to concentrate on writing. These two novels concern the deaths of two women, one from a community filled with hatred and the other from a dysfunctional family. Looking at the long list of Wycliffe books there will be plenty more to choose from.
  • The Women’s Room by Marilyn French. Wikipedia tells me that  ‘it has been described as one of the most influential novels of the modern feminist movement.’ It was first published in 1977 to a barrage of criticism. Set in 1968 it describes Mira’s life as she decides it’s time for a change after subscribing for years to the American dream of husband, children and a spotless kitchen.
  • Two Moons by Jennifer Johnston. This looks like a brand new copy, with no creases on the spine as though it has never been read. I enjoyed The Illusionist a while ago and hope this one will be as good. Set in Ireland, it’s about three generations of women, ‘a modern fairy tale with a dark theme.’
  • Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, described on the back cover as a story that takes us back to the Debutante Season of 1968 – ‘Poignant, funny, fascinating and moving’ .

It was a good job that we only had a limited time in Barter Books, or I could easily have bought more books.

The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton: Book Review

The Tapestry of Love is a beautiful book and a delight to read. I am so pleased that Rosy Thornton sent me a copy to review. It’s a gentle book and yet it’s about the drama of real life, its joys and tragedies. There is romance and so much more as the story of Catherine Parkstone and her move to the Cevennes mountains in southern France, reveals. Catherine divorced eight years previously has sold her house in England and moved to the Les Fenils, a house in the tiny hamlet of Le Grelaudiere near the village of St Julien de Valvert, to start a new life as a seamstress, selling her soft furnishings – tapestries, cushions, and chair covers.  

Catherine has left behind in England her daughter, Lexie, struggling to find a niche in the world of journalism, her son Tim, a scientist and her aging mother, suffering from Altzheimer’s and in a nursing home. Catherine is obviously a capable woman, a woman of common sense, but also a caring, sensitive woman, who may not be as self-sufficient as she seems. She is a creative, skilled needlewoman who has the gift of being able to reproduce on canvas what she visualises in full colour in her mind’s eye. It is this skill and her ability to make friends in her new surroundings that means she soon has a full order book. But she is reckoning without the intricacies of French bureaucracy and because her business is not ‘agricultural’  she cannot get it approved.

Despite the initial reserve of her new neighbours she becomes part of the daily life in Le Grelaudiere, helping her neighbours and being helped in return. Her nearest neighbour is Patrick Castagnol, who at first she thinks is a compatriot until she hears his flawess French. He is a bit of a mystery and when Tim visits he comments astutely that he suspects Patrick is ‘a bit too smooth for his own good’. When Bryony, Catherine’s younger sister visits she is soon smitten by his charm, leaving Catherine feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

There is so much I love in this book. Rosy has a talent for portraying relationships – not just between Patrick and the sisters, but also between the sisters and their mother, and how they cope with their mother’s illness, between Catherine and her grown-up children and between Catherine and her ex-husband. She is nothing if not resourceful. She not only sets up her business, but also grows vegetables and keeps bees. For Catherine it is a time of new beginnings, of new relationships and of letting go of the past.

I also loved Rosy’s descriptions – of the tapestries as Catherine conceives and makes them and of the wild and desolate landscape which forms the backdrop of daily life in Le Grelaudiere. It’s autumn when Catherine arrives, a season of rain and power cuts, which her neighbours describe as ‘C’est triste’. But it was still beautiful. As autumn took its course:

The skies were still pewter, but now swirled with high, wild, wind-chased clouds in shades of angry orange. The view across the valley re-emerged in all its desolate splendour. (page 61)

and then:

the sky was a luminous mauve, a colour that would never seem credible if she replicated it in a tapestry. It cast everything round her into sharp definition, giving the illusion that road and rocks and vegetation were illuminated from some hidden source, like ethereal stage lighting. She had a clear view between the trees, down to the valley of St Julien de Valvert, the ‘green valley’ –  although in this light it was etched in shades of grey and pink and silver.(page 88)

As I read on I wished I could be there.  It is a moving story full of wisdom and one I shall re-read.

Fleshmarket Close by Ian Rankin: Book Review

The latest Rebus book I’ve read is Fleshmarket Close. As usual with Ian Rankin’s books this is a complex novel, based around the issues of asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and racial prejudice. Rebus, himself is tolerant, pointing out that his grandfather was Polish and an immigrant. But Rebus hasn’t mellowed at all. He is still a loner and now an outsider, shipped out of his old office, St Leonard’s to Gayfield Square where there is no office or even desk space for him. He’s impatient with his superiors, realising they think it’s time for him to retire.

There is plenty going on in this book, a lot of characters and sub-plots, so it needs concentrated reading. There’s the murder of an unknown immigrant found dead in Knoxland, high-rise blocks of flats, the discovery of two skeletons under the concrete floor in the cellar of the Warlock pub in Fleshmarket Close, the disappearance of Ishbel Jardine, whose sister, a rape victim, had committed suicide, and the murder of the convicted rapist, Donny Cruickshank. 

Rebus is relentless in his pursuit of the truth, despite his drinking problems and his difficulties in maintaining any meaningful relationships. DS Siobhan Clarke is also feeling more and more as though she is turning into Rebus, with her late-night lone drinking and methods of working,and there are signs that she and Rebus are drawing closer.  How all the cases connect, or indeed if they do connect, is not clear until near the end of the book, when Big Ger Cafferty makes a brief appearance. Although Rebus can’t prove it he knows that Cafferty was behind the scenes using, abusing, conning and manipulating people.

Saturday Selection

I’ve recently finished Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty and am over halfway into The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. Even though I’ve started The Serpent Pool by Martin Edwards I’m thinking what to read after that. I have a number of books lined up – my birthday books for example, but I have several library books and a couple of new books that are also in the running. They are: 

  • The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton. I’ve read one other book by Rosy, which I enjoyed very much – Hearts and Minds, so I was delighted when she asked me if I’d like to read her latest book. I see that other bloggers have already reviewed it with good reports, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this one too. It’s about Catherine who moves from  England to a rural idyll in a tiny hamlet in the Cevennes mountains, where she sets up in business as a seamstress.  But sometimes a rural idyll isn’t what it seems …
  • Seeking Whom He May Devour by Fred Vargas. This is a library book.  I surprised myself by borrowing this book as I don’t like to read scary books and the blurb tells me that this is a frightening and surprising novel about a problem with wolves in  the French mountains – possibly involving a werewolf.
  • Yet another book (another library book) with a French connection is All Our Wordly Goods by Irene Nemirovsky. I’m hoping to enjoy this as much as I did her other books – Fire in the Blood and Suite Francaise. It’s the gripping story of family life and starcrossed lovers, of commerce and greed , set against the backdrop of France from 1911 to 1940.
  • I read about Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer on Bernadette’s blog Reactions to Reading and was convinced that I should read it too. Fortunately my library had a copy. Set in South Africa (and translated from Afrikaans) Detective Benny Griessel investigates the disappearance of an American backpacker, whilst trying to stay sober and mentoring the next generation of detectives.
  • And for something completely different I have The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott. This came to me via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers Programme. Grimaldi was the most celebrated of English clowns and this biography not only tells the story of his life but also paints a picture of the theatrical scene in London in Georgian England. Grimaldi was also an acrobat and an innovator, who struggled with depression.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty: Book Review

Whatever You Love, set in a coastal English town is, as it says in the blurb, an ‘astonishing and emotionally-charged novel’, about Laura whose nine-year old daughter, Betty has been killed by a hit and run driver.  Laura tells her story alternating between events before Betty’s death – how she met and married David, Betty’s father, their subsequent divorce after his affair with Chloe – and after Betty’s death. Laura’s grief is palpable, which makes this a harrowing book to read. It is also startling and shocking in parts.

The ‘after’ chapters are written in the first person narrative, which I’m never completely happy about, but it works quite well in this book, and it does add some clarity to the sequence of events. I think I endured rather than enjoyed this book; ‘enjoy’ is not the right word to described reading it, but it is well written, and the characters, for the most part are well drawn. There is an emphasis on relationships, not only between Laura and David but also between Laura and Chloe, David’s new wife, between Laura and the Sally, whose daughter Willow was also killed in the accident, and between the local people and the immigrant community. As Laura, fraught with grief, tracks down the driver of the car she spirals more and more out of control. 

I found the ending of the book inconclusive and there are some questions left hanging.  It seemed to me a book of two halves – the first dwelling on Laura’s grief and her inability to cope, with the second concentrating on her instability. Just how reliable was Laura, a woman who was pushed to the edge of sanity? Overall, I was impressed by the writing and will look for more by Louise Doughty.

My copy was sent to me by the publishers, Faber and Faber via Library Thing’s Early Reviewers’ Programme.

Birthday Books

These are the books I had for my birthday.

The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction is a reference book that I can just dip into. The rest are all books I’d love to read immediately. If you click on the photo you’ll see from the enlarged view showing the creasing on the spine that I’ve already started to read the Creative Writing book. I’m always fascinated by this type of how-to book and already have a few. I saw this at one of the airport bookshops on our recent trip to Stuttgart (see Flickr for some photos) and thought it looked interesting – I’m much better at reading books like this than actually writing anything.

I’ve also read the first few pages of Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens. I’ve read several of Dickens’s books and am currently reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so I want to know more about him. This biography begins with his death and the reactions to his death, not only in Britain but also in America.

I’ve read Martin Edwards earlier Lake District Mysteries – they’re excellent. I couldn’t resist reading the startling opening of this latest one, The Serpent Pool:

The books were burning.

Pages crackled and bindings split. The fire snarled and spat like a wild creature freed from captivity to feast on calfskin, linen and cloth. Paper blackened and curled, the words disappeared. Poetry and prose, devoured by flames. (page 7)

This grabs my attention and makes me want to read on immediately.

But there are also the other books I can’t wait to get to:

  •  Susan Hill’s latest Simon Serrailler novel The Shadows in the Street, because I’ve all the others and found them all compelling reading.  This is the fifth one.
  • The Sunday Philosophy Club by Alexander McCall Smith, the first Isabel Dalhousie book. I’ve read and loved some of the later ones.
  • The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I’ve read good reports of this book. Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors and this book promises to be just as good as her others.

As usual I wish I could read all of them at once!

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett: Book Review

I didn’t write about Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett as soon as I’d finished reading it, which is a pity because I only made a few notes whilst reading and now my memory of it is fading fast. It took me some time to get really involved in the story, which is a mixture of fiction and history. I liked the historical elements very much. The fictional side mixed in quite well but I found some of it a bit too sentimental and somewhat contrived.

It’s the story of Sir Thomas More’s fall from Henry VIII’s favour and that of his adopted daughter Meg Giggs and her love for two men – John Clements, the family’s former tutor, and the painter, Hans Holbein. Bennett puts forward a theory about John Clements’ true identity drawn from an analysis and an interpretation of two paintings by Hans Holbein of the More family and also his painting, The Ambassadors. I was fascinated by this and the detail in the paintings, enhanced by the inclusion in the book of a reproduction of the plan for Holbein’s first portrait of the More Family painted in 1527 -28 and a colour reproduction of  a second portrait of the family attributed to Holbein, even though it is signed ‘Rowlandas Lockey’.

I liked the way Bennett portrayed different aspects of Sir Thomas More’s character; in his early life he was a humanist and friend of Erasmus, later a courtier and Henry VIII’s Catholic chancellor, who persecuted Protestant heretics. This contrasts with his family life, where he is relaxed, generous and gentle and Meg cannot reconcile her knowledge of him as a father with his cruel and fanatical persecution of the heretics.

It combines a love story, art history and historical fiction providing an insight into the Tudor period at a time of great social and religious change.