Library Books – December 2020

I last wrote about the books I’ve borrowed from the library in February – just before the lockdown in March. Although the libraries opened up a while ago with a Select and Collect service I haven’t used it and now there is time-limited browsing at some branches, and the mobile library is also operating. On Tuesday it came here and I ventured up the road to the library van.

We can’t actually go into it but I could ask for books – I came home with just three. I had to wait for a couple of days before I could actually touch them. Here they are in a library bag showing the date of the next mobile visit.

Today I took them out of the bag – all historical fiction:

I haven’t read any of S J Parris’ books before but Prophecy looks very interesting. It’s the second in her Giordano Bruno series set in the reign of Elizabeth I. Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. In this book set in 1583, Elizabeth’s throne is in peril, threatened by Mary Stuart’s supporters scheme to usurp the rightful monarch.

Next Red Rose, White Rose by Joanna Hickson, set in 15th century England during the Wars of the Roses when Cecily Neville was torn between both sides. Her father was Richard Neville, the Duke of Westmorland and a staunch Lancastrian and she married Richard Plantagenet of York and became the mother of Edward IV and Richard III. I’ve read and enjoyed two of her books, The Tudor Crown and The Lady of the Ravens, so I’m expecting to like this book too.

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of Richard the Lionheart, so Lionheart by Sharon Penman about Richard I appeals to me. Richard was crowned King in 1189 and set off almost immediately on the Third Crusade to regain the Holy Land. Sharon Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour is one of my all time favourite books, and I have four more by her in my Kindle waiting to be read – Here Be Dragons, The Queen’s Man, Prince of Darkness and When Christ and His Saints Slept. So I can see that next year will be a Penman reading feast – and I may have to buy an e-book copy of Lionheart as the font is minute in the printed book!

Six Degrees of Separation: From Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to Bring Up the Bodies

It’s time again for Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month it begins with a book that is celebrating its 50th birthday this year – Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume. I’ve not read this book, but the title, with my name in it, intrigues me. Margaret Simon, almost twelve, likes long hair, tuna fish, the smell of rain, and things that are pink. She’s just moved from New York City to Farbook, New Jersey, and is anxious to fit in with her new friends.

There are several ways I thought of to go from this book – my name, or the author’s name, or the subject matter of a coming of age novel, or a relationship with God.

After several false starts, I chose another coming , bof age novel. The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch is about Miles O’Malley, a thirteen year old boy and about life, growing up, relationships and love. It’s narrated by an adult Miles, looking back at that summer when he found a giant squid, dying on the mudflats at Skookumchuck Bay, at the southern end of Puget Sound, near his house. That was the summer he had a crush on Angie, his ex-babysitter, and his best friend, old Florence was getting sicker each week.

Moving on to another book about ‘tides‘ to The Sea Detective by Mark Douglas-Hume set in Scotland on the fictional island of Eilean Iasgaich. Cal McGill uses his knowledge of tides, winds and currents to solve mysteries, which helps in the investigation of the appearance of severed feet in trainers that had been washed on shore on islands miles apart. It’s a story of unsolved mysteries both from the present day and from the Second World War, and of two Indian girls, sold into the sex trafficking trade.

And the next link is the word ‘sea‘ in the title in The Sea Change by Joanna Rossiter set in lost landscapes this is a novel revolving around a mother and daughter caught up in catastrophic events. The lost landscapes are the village of Imber, a Wiltshire village that was requisitioned by the army during World War Two, where Violet had grown up, and the coastal village of Kanyakumari in Southern India, where her daughter Alice was caught up in the tsunami that devastated the area in 1971.

Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne is a time-slip story with an element of mystery and suspense. Grace Trewe is drawn into Hawise Aske’s life, four and a half centuries earlier in York, 1577. Grace likes to travel and although she survived the Boxing Day tsunami she is suppressing her memories of what happened. As she learns how Hawise died it gets to the point where she dreads slipping out of current time into not only Hawise’s past but also into her own as she remembers what happened to her in the tsunami.

Another time-slip novel is The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick which alternates between the Tudor period and the present day following the life of Alison Banestre (known as Bannister in the present day) as she moves between the centuries trying to find out what happened to Mary Seymour. It’s a mystery, based on the true story of Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr (Henry VIII’s sixth wife) and Thomas Seymour, who she married after Henry’s death.

Thomas Seymour was Jane Seymour’s brother. Their family home was Wolf Hall, an early 17th-century manor house where Mary Seymour was taken in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child. This brings me to Hilary Mantel’s trilogy, Wolf Hall and specifically to the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, which begins at Wolf Hall, where Henry VIII is visiting the Seymours. And it is at Wolf Hall that Henry begins to fall in love with Jane.

My chain this month includes a coming of age novel, books with tides and seas in their titles, time-slip novels and books in which Wolf Hall features. It begins in America in 1970, moves forward and backwards in time and place to the 16th century in England.

Next month (January 2, 2021), we’ll start with the winner of the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver

I read Thin Air: A Ghost Story by Michelle Paver in the summer, but it’s a good choice to read for Halloween. I didn’t find it as scary as Dark Matter, but even so it is very atmospheric and chilling – in more ways than one. The setting is Kangchenjunga in the Himalayas as a group of five men set out to climb the mountain in 1935.

Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, had claimed many lives and no one had reached the summit. Held to be a sacred mountain, it is one of the most dangerous mountains in the world – believed to be the haunt of demons and evil spirits. An unsuccessful attempt had been made in 1907, led by Edmund Lyell, when only two men had returned. The group in 1935, led by Major Cotterell, attempted to follow the 1907 route up the south-west face.

Their story is narrated by medic, Dr. Stephen Pearce, accompanying his older brother, Kits. The brothers have always been rivals and this continues as they make their way up the mountain. Things start to go wrong almost straight away and Stephen is full of foreboding. He fears someone is following them and when he finds a rucksack left behind by the earlier climbers he fears he is loosing his mind. Under the most extreme weather conditions, the constant fear of an avalanche and the increasing effects of mountain sickness Stephen’s paranoia rises. More horrors keep piling on.

It’s not a long book, 240 pages, and almost half of it describes the mountain itself and the route the climbers took to get to the start of the climb and setting up their base camp. So it is only in the later part where the terror hinted at before sets in. The isolation, a sense of ‘otherness’, the extreme cold and the immense scale of the mountain with its towering pinnacles, deep crevasses, and above all the silence dominates. Were Stephen’s experiences the result of being at a high altitude, were they hallucinations – or was what he saw really there? I was never sure and that was part of the horror.

Thin Air is based on real events, although the 1907 and 1935 expeditions described in it are fictional. But the setting is real, the characterisation is excellent as is the feel of the 1930s, with its class snobbery, and racism and above all the creeping sense of dread that pervades the whole book.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

I’ve read and enjoyed three of Maggie O’Farrell’s books, The Hand That First Held Mine, Instructions for a Heatwave, and a memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated her life, I Am, I Am, I Am. So I was looking forward to reading her latest book, Hamnet, which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year.

Set mainly in Stratford-on-Avon, it is historical fiction inspired by Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son and is a story of the bond between him and his twin sister, Judith. (At the time the names Hamlet and Hamnet were considered virtually interchangeable.) The central theme, though is the grief – the overwhelming and all consuming grief, that the whole family and in particular, Agnes, Hamnet’s mother suffered when he died at the age of eleven in 1596. Although the cause of his death was not recorded in the parish registers, in Hamnet Maggie O’Farrell imagines it was the plague.

The opening chapters confused me a bit at first as they cover the events in 1596 alternating with chapters about the time some fifteen years earlier when William Shakespeare, never named in this book, first met Anne Hathaway, also known as Agnes, pronounced Ann-yis. He was employed by her father as a tutor to his sons and much to her family’s disapproval they fell in love. Their first child, Susannah, was born six months after their marriage, followed by the twins in 1585. Four years, or so later, Shakespeare wrote the play, Hamlet giving its tragic hero a variation of his dead son’s name.

But Hamnet and Shakespeare are not the main focus, rather it is Agnes who takes centre stage. Little is actually known about her and she comes across to me in this book as a rather wayward, wild young woman when Shakespeare first met her, flouting convention and set on getting her own way, manipulating the people around her. Even Shakespeare’s decision to leave Stratford for London is presented as Agnes’s decision as she subtly persuaded him to leave. She was a skilled herbal healer and had the ‘second sight’ able to see a person’s future. Her grief over Hamnet’s death is intense, so overwhelming that I could hardly bear to read about it. It is a tragedy almost beyond telling – raw unrelenting, and powerful, especially the scene where she washes Hamnet’s dead body. I was relieved to finish it.

However, it is written in the third person present tense which distracted and distanced me from the story, although it is richly descriptive. There are some vivid scenes in the early part of the book, such as the scenes in the apple shed and later in the wood where Agnes gave birth to her first child. And an episode about a flea is slotted into the text, giving an explanation of the spread of the plague from Venice across Europe to Stratford. As this written before the outbreak of the current pandemic, it struck me as particularly prescient.

I also enjoyed the final section of the book in which Agnes travelled to London to see a performance of her husband’s new play, Hamlet. But in the middle section I found myself thinking the description passages were overwritten and this lessened their impact on me diluting somewhat the portrait of grief. Overall though, I found the whole book fascinating and I’m glad I read it.

  • File Size : 793 KB
  • Word Wise : Enabled
  • Print Length : 279 pages
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating: 3*

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Sometimes I read books and have no desire to write about them, not because I didn’t enjoy them but because I just want to get on and read the next book. And this summer has been one of those times, so that now I’m finding difficult to remember all the details of the books I’ve read because I didn’t write about them soon after I finished reading. It’s been a strange time during this pandemic and it’s not been easy to concentrate. But I do want to keep a record of my reading and the only way now to catch up is to write some brief notes about each book, beginning with The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, the winner of the 2013 Booker Prize,

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I downloaded The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton 3 years ago. I read it in July. It is a long and detailed book, written with such intricate plotting and numerous characters that it bewildered me at times. It’s historical fiction set in New Zealand in the 1860s, during its gold rush and it has everything – gold fever, murder, mystery and a ghost story too.

Blurb from Goodreads:

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky. Richly evoking a mid-nineteenth-century world of shipping, banking, and gold rush boom and bust, The Luminaries is a brilliantly constructed, fiendishly clever ghost story and a gripping page-turner. 

I found the structure a bit of a stumbling block at first as the chapters halve in length from the very long opening chapter to the very short final chapter – so that from feeling overwhelmed by the length and detail of the opening chapters, by the time that I neared the ending I felt distinctly dissatisfied with the brevity of the concluding chapters – the early chapters are too long and the final ones are too short. And the significance of the astronomical headings completely bypassed me.

But if this sounds as though I didn’t enjoy this novel, that is wrong, because I did for the major part of the book. I loved the pictures it builds up of the setting in New Zealand, the frontier town and its residents from the prospectors to the prostitutes, and the obsessive nature of gold mining. And I did become fully absorbed in the story during the week it took me to read. it

These are the other books I read in July and August and have not yet reviewed:

  • Thin Air by Michelle Paver
  • The Birdwatcher by William Shaw
  • Still Life by Val McDermid
  • Dead Man’s Footsteps by Peter James

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

Faber and Faber Ltd/ 19 March 2020/ 256 pages/ Kindle edition/ 5*

Three years ago I read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End which has to be one of the best books I’ve read, so I began reading A Thousand Moons with great anticipation of a good read. I wasn’t disappointed and I loved it. It continues the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. It really helps if you have read Days Without End first to understand the characters’ history and relationships and how they got to this stage in their lives.

Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.

They are living and working on a farm owned by Lige Magan in Tennessee, about seven miles from a little town called Paris. It is now the 1870s, some years after the end of the Civil War, but the town was still full of rough Union soldiers and vagabonds on every little byway. Dark skin and black hair were enough to get you beaten up – and it wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian. Life wasn’t any better for the other two workers on the farm, black ex-slaves, Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother, Tennyson. These are dangerous times not just in the town but also in the woods outside the town from Zach Petrie’s gang of ‘nightriders’.

Winona remembers little of her early life, beyond seeing in the back of her mind a ‘blackened painting’ of blood and screaming, bayonets, bullets, fire and death. But their lives are full of love at the farm; Winona is loved as a daughter by Thomas and John, who are themselves lovers. She works for lawyer Briscoe as his clerk and ventures into town for supplies, which was where she met Jas Jonski, a young man who declares he wants to marry her. At first she hopes that she might very much like to marry Jas. But, then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head as Jas is white and the Paris townspeople began to talk. As his employer said he thought Jas had gone mad or wicked in some way – ‘to want to go marrying something closer to a monkey than a man’ was how he put it.

And then came the dreadful day when Winona was brutally attacked so badly that she shook for two weeks and something deep within her was shaking a long time after. She can’t remember at first what had actually happened to her, except that she was plied with ‘distillery whiskey’, nor who had carried out the assault. But all the signs pointed to Jas Jonski. Then Tennyson Bouguereau was also attacked, and their peaceful happy life was shattered. Winona set out for revenge. And in so doing she began to remember more about her early life and about her mother, a strong Lakota woman, full of courage and pride.

‘A thousand moons’ was her mother’s deepest measure of time. To her time was ‘a kind of hoop or a circle not a long string and if you walked far enough she said you could find the people still living in the long ago’ – ‘a thousand years all at once’. As she sets off on her quest it is the thought of her mother’s courage that enabled Winona to find her own courage – the ‘courage of a thousand years’.

I just love everything about this book, so beautifully written, rendering the way the characters speak so that I could hear them, and describing the landscape so poetically and lyrically that the scenes unfolded before my eyes; and the characters too, all real people from the American West of the 1870s, as though I was there in their midst. It would make a superb film.

Sebastian Barry

Photo credit: ©Alan Betson, The Irish Times

Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.

My thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for my copy of this book, via NetGalley.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books With Colours in the Titles

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog. This week’s topic is

Books With Colours in the Titles.

These are all books I really enjoyed reading.

  • Agnes Grey by Anne Bronte like Jane Eyre, Agnes is a governess and this is the story of her experiences working for two families in Victorian England.
  • The Black Friar – the second book in the Damian Seeker series, historical crime fiction set in 1655 during the Interregnum under Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. Damian Seeker is the Captain of Cromwell’s Guard.
  • Blue Heaven by C J Box – set in North Idaho this a story about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives.
  • The Crimson Rooms by Katharine McMahon – set in London in 1924, Evelyn Gifford is one of the few pioneer female lawyers. It’s early days for women to be accepted as lawyers and this novel clearly shows the prejudice these women had to overcome
  • Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L Sayers – a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery in which he investigates the death of a landscape painter and fisherman who was found dead in a burn near Newton Stewart.
  • Greenmantle by John Buchan – this is basically an adventure and spy story with a highly improbable plot. It’s pure escapism.
  • Silver Lies by Ann Parker  – historical crime fiction set in 1879/80 in the silver-mining town of Leadville, Colarado in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. Joe Rose, a silver assayer, is found dead in Tiger Alley propped up behind the Silver Queen saloon.
  • Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 – 70 this focuses on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people.
  • A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson investigate the murder of Enoch J Drebber, an American found dead in the front room of an empty house at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road,  with the word “RACHE” scrawled in blood on the wall beside the body. The TV version A Study in Pink in the Sherlock series, which although very different in some respects is surprisingly faithful to the book in others.
  • Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende – Aurora is the narrator and this is the story of her family. After giving details of her birth, in 1880 in San Francisco in the Chinese quarter, she goes back to 1862 beginning her story with details about her grandparents.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I’ve Read But Not Reviewed

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog. This week’s topic is a freebie and I decided to write about – Books I’ve Read But Not Reviewed.

These are all books I read before I began blogging in 2007. I’ve linked them to their pages on the Fantastic Fiction website.

  1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood – Did Grace kill her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper/lover Nancy Montgomery? I couldn’t decide all the way through the book. I’ve enjoyed all of her books that I’ve read so far – this is one of my favourites.
  2. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes – this is based on the true story of Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, a solicitor from Birmingham. I’ve since read a few more of his books.
  3. The Conjuror’s Bird by Martin Davies about an extinct bird from Capt Cook’s second voyage, described on Davies’ website as a ‘novel of two narratives – one of the present day and one of the late 18th Century. As the two stories intertwine, the novel unfolds layer after layer of mystery and suspense.’
  4. The Various Haunts of Men by Susan Hill – the first book in the Simon Serrailler series. I’ve read seven books in the series – and then decided I’d have enough of them and haven’t read the later books.
  5. The Apothecary’s House by Adrian Mathews – set in Amsterdam about the history of the piece of looted Nazi art, a painting with a disturbing wartime provenance. Archivist, Ruth Braams at the Rijks Museum, enters a series of increasingly lethal adventures as she investigates its secret symbolism.
  6. Dissolution by C J Sansom – the first in his Tudor murder mystery series featuring Matthew Shardlake. This is set in 1537 – Shardlake investigates the death of a Commissioner during the dissolution of the monasteries. I’ve read all of his subsequent Shardlake books.
  7. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields – the story of Daisy Goodwill, from her birth on a kitchen floor in Manitoba, Canada, to her death in a Florida nursing home nearly ninety years later.
  8. A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve – at an inn in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, seven former schoolmates gather for a wedding. It’s an astonishing weekend of revelation and recrimination, forgiveness and redemption. At one time I loved Anita Shreve’s but went off the more recent ones.
  9. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron – The discovery of a forgotten book leads to a hunt for an elusive author who may or may not still be alive.
  10. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear – this is the first in the Maisie Dobbs series. In 1929 Maisie set herself up as a private investigator, having started as a maid to the London aristocracy, studied her way to Cambridge and served as a nurse in the Great War. I’ve read a few more of the series since I read this one.

WWW Wednesday: 22 July 2020

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WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

The Three Ws are:

 What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you’ll read next?

The book descriptions are from Amazon.

Currently reading:

After much deliberation and starting several books from my 20 Books of Summer list I decided to read Thin Air: a Ghost Story by Michelle Paver.

Kangchenjunga. Third highest peak on earth. Greatest killer of them all.

Five Englishmen set off from Darjeeling, determined to tackle the sacred summit. But courage can only take them so far – and the mountain is not their only foe.

As mountain sickness and the horrors of extreme altitude set in, the past refuses to stay buried. And sometimes, the truth won’t set you free. . .

Recently Finished: 

I finished reading The Luminaries yesterday and am still mulling it over. I enjoyed it but I’m not sure I liked the structure, with the length of the chapters decreasing as the story progressed.

It is 1866, and young Walter Moody has come to make his fortune upon the New Zealand goldfields. On the stormy night of his arrival, he stumbles across a tense gathering of twelve local men who have met in secret to discuss a series of unexplained events: A wealthy man has vanished, a prostitute has tried to end her life, and an enormous fortune has been discovered in the home of a luckless drunk. Moody is soon drawn into the mystery: a network of fates and fortunes that is as complex and exquisitely ornate as the night sky.

Reading Next:

At the moment I think it could be Smallbone Deceased by Michael Gilbert. I wrote about the opening paragraph and included a quotation from page 55 in My Friday post. Ot it could be Wycliffe and How To Kill a Cat by W J Burley. But it might be a different book that takes my fancy when the time comes.

The girl was young, with auburn hair arranged on the pillow. Wycliffe could almost believe she was asleep – that is, until he saw her face. She had been strangled, and someone had brutally smashed her face – but after death, not before… She lay in a seedy hotel room down by the docks, but her luggage, her clothes and her make-up all suggested she had more class than her surroundings.

Superintendent Wycliffe was officially on holiday, but the case fascinated him. Who was the girl? Why was she lying naked in a shabby hotel room? What was she doing with a thousand pounds hidden underneath some clothing? And, above all, why had someone mutilated her after she was dead?

As Wycliffe begins to investigate, he finds there are too many suspects, too many motives – and too many lies . . .

What do you think – which one would you read next?

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors Whose Books I’ve Read the Most

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish and now hosted by Jana at That Artsy Reader Girl. For the rules see her blog. This week’s topic is  Authors Whose Books I’ve Read the Most.

My list is of the authors whose books I’ve read the most since I began my blog. I’ve linked them to their pages on the Fantastic Fiction website. They are a mix of crime fiction and historical fiction.

  1. Agatha Christie
  2. Ian Rankin
  3. Ann Cleeves
  4. Peter Robinson
  5. Andrew Taylor
  6. Robert Harris
  7. Elly Griffiths
  8. Georges Simenon
  9. Daphne du Maurier
  10. Sharon Bolton