A Z of TBRs: E-Books – J, K and L

It’s been a long time since I last looked at the forgotten e-books on my Kindle, so it’s time to dip into it again. I have a bad habit of downloading books and then forgetting all about them – it’s as though they’ve gone into a black hole.

Today I’m looking at books with titles beginning with the letters J, K and L, with a little ‘taster’ from each. The summaries are from Goodreads.

Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories by Thomas Grant – I bought this in February 2020 after watching the BBC series,The Trial of Christine Keeler, the story of the Profumo affair in 1962 as seen from her perspective. Hutchinson was Keeler’s defence barrister.

Summary: Born in 1915 into the fringes of the Bloomsbury Group, Jeremy Hutchinson went on to become the greatest criminal barrister of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. The cases of that period changed society for ever and Hutchinson’s role in them was second to none. In Case Histories, Jeremy Hutchinson’s most remarkable trials are examined, each one providing a fascinating look into Britain’s post-war social, political and cultural history.

A cartoon by Cummings appeared in the Daily Express on 10 July 1963 headed ‘The adventures of James Macbond’. It showed the beleaguered figure of Harold Mavmillan fleeing from three assailants. Kim Philby and his fellow spy John Vassall are both dressed as shady hoodlums, one wielding a knife, the other a pistol both aimed at Macmillan. Christine Keeler is the third, incarnated on the page as a sort of vampiric harpy, her long-nailed hand outstretched trying to clutch the Prime Minister’s coat tails.

That year was a kind of horror show for Macmillan, and he was not to see out 1963 as Prime Minister. His resignation was accepted by the Queen in October.(page 95)

The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan – I bought this in May 2017 and can’t remember how I first came across it.

Summary: Anthony Peardew is the keeper of lost things. Forty years ago, he carelessly lost a keepsake from his beloved fiancée, Therese. That very same day, she died unexpectedly. Brokenhearted, Anthony sought consolation in rescuing lost objects—the things others have dropped, misplaced, or accidentally left behind—and writing stories about them.

He took a sip from his drink and lovingly kissed the cold glass of the photograph before replacing it on the table next to his chair. She was not a classic beauty; a young woman with wavy hair and large dark eyes that shone, even in an old black and white photograph. But she was wonderfully striking, with a preserve that still reached out from all those years ago and captivated him. She had been dead for forty years, but she was still his life, and her death had given him his purpose. It had made Andrew Peardew the Keeper of Lost Things. (page 4)

The Lady of Sorrows by Anne Zouroudi – I bought this in April 2013! It is the fourth in Anne Zouroudi’s Mysteries of the  Greek Detective series featuring Hermes Diaktoros. Hermes is a detective with a difference. Just who he is and who he works for is never explained. I have read three of the books in the series. Each one features one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

Summary: A painter is found dead at sea off the coast of a remote Greek island. For our enigmatic detective Hermes Diaktoros, the plot can only thicken: the painter’s work, an icon of the Virgin long famed for its miraculous powers, has just been uncovered as a fake. But has the painter died of natural causes or by a wrathful hand? What secret is a dishonest gypsy keeping? And what haunts the ancient catacombs beneath the bishop’s house?

‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Hermes Diaktoros, of Athens. Diaktoros being, as you may know, an ancient word for messenger. My father has a strange idea of humour. He’s something of a scholar of the classical world.’

Politely, the priest took the fat man’s hand, which was, in spite of the day’s heat was quite cool to touch.

‘Father Linos Egiotis,’ said the priest.

‘A pleasure,’ said the fat man. ‘Now, I know you must be anxious to close up for siesta, and I won’t keep you.’ He turned back to the icon. ‘She’s very lovely, isn’t she?’ he said. ‘I have been wanting to make her acquaintance for many years. Quite by chance we were passing within a few miles, and had time enough before my next engagement to make the detour. She has quite a reputation, I believe, for performing magic tricks. Magic tricks are a paerticular interest of mine.’

‘Magic tricks?’ queried the priest, with annoyance. ‘The Lady occasionally sees fit to grant miracles. They are acts of divine grace, not magic tricks.’ (page 31)

So, three very different books from the depths of my Kindle. I’m not sure which one to read first. If you’ve read any of these books please let me know what you think. Or if you haven’t read them do they tempt you?

Failures of State by Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott

The inside story of the UK’s response to the pandemic from the Insight investigations unit at The Sunday Times

Mudlark, Harper Collins| 18 March 2021| 422 pages| My own copy| 4*

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but this year I have been reading more than usual. This book caught my eye in August and although I’ve watched countless TV programmes and interviews and read numerous articles about the coronavirus pandemic I just had to read it.

Blurb:

Failures of State: The Inside Story of Britain’s Battle with Coronavirus recounts the extraordinary political decisions taken at the heart of Boris Johnson’s government during the global pandemic.

Meticulously researched and corroborated by hundreds of inside sources, politicians, emergency planners, scientists, doctors, paramedics and bereaved families, along with leaked data and documents, this is the insider’s account of how the government sleepwalked into disaster and tried to cover up its role in the tragedy – and it exposes one of the most scandalous failures of political leadership in British history.

In the eye of the storm was Boris Johnson, a Prime Minister who idolised Winston Churchill and had the chance to become a hero of his own making as the crisis engulfed the nation. Instead he was fixated on Brexit, his own political destiny and a myriad of personal issues, all while presiding over the UK government’s botched response to the global coronavirus pandemic. After missing key Cobra meetings, embracing and abandoning herd immunity and dithering over lockdown, Johnson left the NHS facing an unmanageable deluge of patients. His inaction resulted in the deaths of many thousands of British people and his own hospitalisation at the hands of the pandemic, yet further reckless decisions allowed a deadly second wave to sweep across the country in the autumn months with the economy on the brink of collapse.

With access to key figures at the top of government during the most tumultuous year of modern British history, Failures of State is an exhaustive and thrillingly told story – and one of the most essential pieces of investigative reporting for a generation.

My thoughts:

The book covers the period from 24 January 2020 – 23 January 2021, with a Prologue covering the period from 24 April 2012 – 23 January 2020. Since it was written time has moved on and further information has become available, but this book is a reminder of how it started and described what subsequently happened. So, much of it was what I already knew, especially about the steps that were taken in the UK to cope with the situation.

In considering the two phrases ‘we were following the science’ and ‘we have taken the right steps at the right time’ they ask was this in fact what happened? They used many sources as described in the blurb and their research gave them the answer ‘no’.

In particular, they question why the government failed to act more swiftly, what the scientists told ministers, whether Britain was equipped to fight a pandemic and what were the consequences. I’m a cautious person and I remember being anxious that not enough was being done at the time and thought that we should have locked down earlier than we did. Reading this book makes me think that I wasn’t being over-cautious. I am also a bit cynical about what I read in the papers and what I hear and see being reported, so I viewed this book with caution too. Many of the sources are named in the book, but many are not.

I am appalled at what this book reveals. I am appalled by the corruption, outright lies, obfuscations, misinformation and incompetence they report – worse than I had thought at the time.

But most of all I am utterly appalled by what is revealed about the NHS and the restrictions that were imposed on reporting what was taking place in hospitals. The NHS had limited capacity to deal with the pandemic and the public were not made aware of the selection process that was used in deciding who could be given intensive care. If it had been reported there would have been widespread panic, terror and outrage. It is appalling that so many people were not given intensive care, and that so many had died who could otherwise have survived.

It is a shocking account of a terrible year – words fail me.

Book Beginnings & The Friday 56: Another Journey through Britain by Mark Probert

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

This week I’m featuring the latest book I’ve just started reading, Another Journey Through Britain by Mark Probert, which was free on Amazon UK, although it’s currently on offer for 99p.

In this book Mark Probert follows the route taken by John Hillaby in his 1960s book Journey through Britain, telling the story of his 1,100 mile walk from Land’s End in south-west England to the north-east coast of Scotland at John o’Groats. It had captured Probert’s imagination and when he entered semi-retirement in 2018 he decided to repeat Hillaby’s book, looking out for the things he wrote about in his original book and comparing how today’s Britain differed from that of fifty years earlier. He didn’t walk, though but he did it on a motor bike, a Royal Enfield Classic 500.

The Book Begins:

The visitor car park at Land’s End was almost empty and ghostly silent. It was just after 10 am on a chilly May morning.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader. If you have to improvise, that is okay.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Pages 55-56:

Beside the National Parks there are thirty four Areas of Outstanding National Parks (AONB) in England and Wales, less than half of which were in existence in 1966. Being British, we have to make things complicated. In Scotland they have two National Parks, forty five National Nature Reserves, three UNESCO GeoParks and two UNESCO Biospheres. The original purpose of the Parks was to conserve and preserve, but also to open the areas up for people to enjoy. Nowadays, the National Parks cover approximately 10 percent of England, 20 percent of Wales and 7 percent of Scotland.

Index, A History of the by Dennis Duncan

Penguin| 19 August 2021| 339 pages| Review copy| 4*

Synopsis:

Most of us give little thought to the back of the book – it’s just where you go to look things up. But here, hiding in plain sight, is an unlikely realm of ambition and obsession, sparring and politicking, pleasure and play. Here we might find Butchers, to be avoided, or Cows that sh-te Fire, or even catch Calvin in his chamberwithaNonne. This is the secret world of the index: an unsung but extraordinary everyday tool, with an illustrious but little-known past. Here, for the first time, its story is told.

Charting its curious path from the monasteries and universities of thirteenth-century Europe to Silicon Valley in the twenty-first, Dennis Duncan reveals how the index has saved heretics from the stake, kept politicians from high office and made us all into the readers we are today. We follow it through German print shops and Enlightenment coffee houses, novelists’ living rooms and university laboratories, encountering emperors and popes, philosophers and prime ministers, poets, librarians and – of course – indexers along the way. Revealing its vast role in our evolving literary and intellectual culture, Duncan shows that, for all our anxieties about the Age of Search, we are all index-rakers at heart, and we have been for eight hundred years.

My thoughts:

This book is not just about the history of the index, but also about the history of reading and the evolution of the book from the scrolls, manuscripts and the codex before the the invention of printing – how they were produced and used. I was interested in reading it as I’m an ex-librarian and cataloguer, later an assistant in a county record office where a large part of my job involved indexing. If you think like me that an index is an indispensable part of a non fiction book then you’ll enjoy this book, which is both informative and entertaining. And I often wish fiction books were indexed too – one of the advantages of an e-book is that you can search the text, even better if it has the X-Ray feature.

It explains the difference between the index and the table of contents, goes into the evolution of page numbers and the problems of alphabetisation. This is not a dry, factual account it is written with humour and insights into the past, using examples from historical texts, and from indexes complied as satirical attacks on their authors. I never knew indexes had been used as weapons! Nor did I know that some works of fiction had been indexed in the past – full details in Chapter 6 ‘Indexing Fictions: Naming was Always a Difficult Art’, quoting from Lewis Carroll’s works. Carroll was fascinated with indexes, leaning particularly towards the whimsical, using his logician’s wit.

Neither is it stuck in the far distant past, Duncan brings it up to date in the digital age and the ubiquity of the search engine with the rise of anxiety that this is changing our brains, shortening our attention spans and eroding our capacity for memory. But this, Duncan explains is nothing new as the history of the index shows that there have always been fears that nobody will read properly any more when they could just use an index to replace the ways of close reading. The ways we read have changed over the generations.

The Index, a History of the is simply fascinating.

About the Author

Dennis Duncan is a writer, translator and lecturer in English at University College London. He has published numerous academic books, including Book Parts and The Oulipo and Modern Thought, as well as translations of Michel Foucault, Boris Vian, and Alfred Jarry. His writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the London Review of Books, and recent articles have considered Mallarmé and jugs, James Joyce and pornography, and the history of Times New Roman. 

Throwback Thursday: Agatha Christie at Home

I’m linking up today with Davida @ The Chocolate Lady’s Book Review Blog for Throwback Thursday. It takes place on the Thursday before the first Saturday of every month (i.e., the Thursday before the monthly #6Degrees post). The idea is to highlight one of your previously published book reviews and then link back to Davida’s blog.

Today I’m looking back at my post on Agatha Christie at Home by Hilary Macaskill, which I first posted on 19 August 2013.

Here’s the first paragraph:

One of the things that struck me when I was reading Agatha Christie’s An Autobiography was her love of houses. It stemmed from her childhood dolls’ house. She enjoyed buying all the things to put in it – not just furniture, but all the household implements such as brushes and dustpans, and food, cutlery and glasses. She also liked playing at moving house, using a cardboard box as a furniture van.

Click here to read my full review

The next Throwback Thursday post is scheduled for September 30.

Books Read in August 2021

August was a busy month for me and it didn’t leave much time for reading or writing reviews! But I did read 5 books, and as both Framley Parsonage (684 pages) and Dead Tomorrow (663 pages) are very long books, it took me over half of August to read just those two!

  1. Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope 4* – see my review
  2. The Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant 4*
  3. The Madness of Crowds by Douglas Murray 3*
  4. Dead Tomorrow by Peter James 3*
  5. Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch 4*

The only book I reviewed was Framley Parsonage. So, before I begin September’s books here are just a few brief thoughts on the other 4 books.

The Queen’s Spy by Clare Marchant – historical fiction with a dual timeline set in 1584 and 2021. I read this quickly drawn along by the plot and keen to know the links between the two main characters, Mathilde in the present day and Tom in the 16th century. I was more interested in Tom’s story. He is deaf and dumb, but he can lip read. He is an apothecary and also a spy, working for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s spymaster, during the period leading up to the Babbington Plot. Mathilde has inherited a medieval mansion, Lutton Hall, and she is surprised to find that she has family there she had never heard of before. The two timelines interlink as Mathilde discovers the secrets hidden at Lutton Hall.

The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray. Crowd behaviour fascinates me, so I hoped this book would cast some light on the subject – it certainly did. There are sections on sexuality, gender, technology and race, including a chapter on transgender, which I found the most enlightening. The synopsis describes how Murray “reveals the astonishing new culture wars playing out in our workplaces, universities, schools and homes in the names of social justice, identity politics and ‘intersectionality’.” Some of it I found shocking and infuriating.

Dead Tomorrow by Peter James – the 5th book in his Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series. Grace and his team investigate the deaths of three teenagers found by a dredger at the bottom of the English Channel, which leads them to a gang of human traffickers operating from Eastern Europe. Parallel with their investigation a desperate mother is fighting for her daughter’s life. One of the things I like about the Roy Grace series is the continuing story of Grace’s personal life. But what I find irritating is the way Peter James describes what all his characters are wearing and the details of all the little details of their surroundings. And this book in particular is far too long and drawn out.

Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch, the second Rivers of London novel. I loved the first book, Rivers of London. These are fast-paced police procedurals of a very different kind – urban fantasy, set in the real world of London, a mix of reality and the supernatural. You could probably read them as standalones, but I really think it’s best to read them in order to get the full background to what is going on and what has already happened to the main characters.

DC Peter Grant is assigned to work with Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale (who is the last wizard in England) as part of a special and secret branch of the Met, dealing with all things magical and supernatural. Moon Over Soho begins with the murder of Cyrus Wilkinson, a part-time jazz saxophonist, who had apparently dropped dead of a heart attack just after finishing a gig in a Soho jazz club. Peter can hear music coming from his corpse. What follows is a complicated story full of twists and turns, humour, and some gruesome and unusual murders.

My Friday Post: The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

On Fridays I often join in with two book memes:

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires. 

This week I’m featuring The Radium Girls: They paid with their lives. Their final fight was for justice by Kate Moore, one of my TBRs. It’s the true story about dial-painters, girls and women who painted the numbers on clocks, watches and other instruments using radium-infused luminous paint in the 1920s and 1930s. The girls shone brightly in the dark, covered head to toe in dust from the paint. 

The scientist had forgotten all about the radium. It was tucked discreetly within the folds of his waistcoat pocket, enclosed in a slim glass tube in such a small quantity that he could not feel its weight.

Also on a Friday The Friday 56 is hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

56%:

‘Every week there seemed to be some emergency order that required an extra pair of hands. Then Catherine would slip her brush between her lips, dip it in the powder and paint; the girls all still did it that way at Radium Dial, for their instructions were never changed.

Ice Bound by Jerri Nielsen with Maryanne Vollers

Ebury Press | 2001 | 379 p | Own copy | 5*

I read Ice Bound: One Woman’s Incredible Battle for Survival over two months, taking my time. Dr Jerri Nielsen was a forty-six year old doctor working in Ohio when in 1998 she made the decision to take a year’s sabbatical at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Research Station in Antarctica, the most remote and perilous place on earth. She had just been through an acrimonious divorce and could no longer see her children.

The first part of the book describes life at the South Pole in detail, the layers of clothing needed in the extreme cold, the adjustments to living at 11,000 feet above sea level, and the difficulties of living at the pole with power failures, fires, frostbite, boredom, memory loss, nausea, and getting lost in the darkness and total whiteout. But she also describes the friendships she made and how she felt about celebrating her forty-seventh birthday at the South Pole:

It was the best birthday I had had since childhood. I was forty-seven and surrounded by friends, in a community that needed me, in a place that I loved, discovering more every day about what truly mattered in life. (page 138)

It’s about half way into the book that she describes when in the dark Antarctic winter of 1999 she discovered a lump in her breast. Whilst the Pole was cut off from the rest of the world in total darkness she treated herself, taking biopsies and having chemotherapy, until she was rescued by the Air National Guard in October 1999. She said this about her experience:

I can say that after living at the South Pole nothing can possibly terrify me, even looking at my own death. That is one of the many things this place does to you. Nothing after that really matters. (page 190)

The descriptions of the polar landscape are just beautiful:

I was fascinated by the concept of twilight and its three discrete stages. Yet all I truly understood was that the world outside the Dome seemed beautiful and alien every day. Now the sky was deep purple with bands of orange on the horizon. I was outside watching the sky one day when I saw my first aura. It looked like a shimmering green curtain, rolling in a solar wind, with pink searchlights shooting into the atmosphere like heaven’s own movie premier. The rest was silence and space. (page 147)

This is a true story of survival under extreme circumstances, of courage and endurance. Even without cancer I cannot imagine coping with life at the South Pole. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy so I have experienced some of what she went through, but it was nothing compared to what Jerri Nielssen had to go through. To take my own biopsies and administer my own chemotherapy like she did would be beyond me. It is hard for me to read even now years later and I found it immensely moving.

The book alternates between narrative and personal letters and emails and in her acknowledgments Jerri Nielssen thanks Maryanne Vollers for her help in telling her story. It held me spellbound from beginning to end.

I wanted to know what happened next to her. The book has an Epilogue that describes how she was treated – mastectomy, more chemotherapy and radiation. The cancer then went into remission, but in 2005 it returned in her bones and liver, later spreading to her brain and she died in June 2009. A brave and truly inspirational woman.

New Additions at BooksPlease

I’ve been lucky with some of the 99p e-books on offer on Amazon recently and bought three books, well five actually as one is a trilogy.

First a nonfiction book, Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties by historian, Peter Hennessy. The centre of the book is 1963 – the year of the Profumo Crisis, the Great Train Robbery, the satire boom, de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s first application to join the EEC, the fall of Macmillan and the unexpected succession to the premiership of Alec Douglas-Home. Then, in 1964, the battle of what Hennessy calls the tweedy aristocrat and the tweedy meritocrat – Harold Wilson, who would end 13 years of Conservative rule and usher in a new era. It’s the final book in Hennessy’s Post War trilogy.

Then three novels – all historical fiction: The Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration; The Eye in the Door; The Ghost Road by Pat Barker, three novels set during the First World War. I already had the third book, but hadn’t read it because I wanted to read the trilogy in order. It tells the story of three men, shell-shocked soldiers, who were sent back to the front. It’s based on the experiences of poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wifred Owen who met at Craiglockhart Hospital near Edinburgh.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton – A few years ago I borrowed this book from the library but had to return it unread. Later on I watched the TV series and thought I’d like to read the book. So, when it was on offer for 99p I bought it. It’s set in Amsterdam in 1686. Nella Oortman marries a rich merchant, but life in her new home is unfulfilled. Even her cabinet house brings a mystery to the secretive world she has entered as the lifelike miniatures somehow start eerily foreshadowing her fate.

This last book is my choice this month from Amazon First Reads free books:

Tears of Amber by Sofía Segovia – a novel set during the Second World War in East Prussia between 1938 and 1947. In her author’s note Sofia Segovia says her novel was inspired by the story of Ilse and Arno Schipper, who established a factory in Monterrey, Mexico, her home town. It is a mix of fact and fiction. Publication date 1 May 2021. I have started reading and it’s looking good so far.

My Friday Post: Weeds by Richard Mabey

On Fridays I join in with two book memes:

Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader, where bloggers share the first sentence or more of a current read, as well as initial thoughts about the sentence(s), impressions of the book, or anything else that the opening inspires. 

This week I’m featuring a non-fiction book, Weeds: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Weeds by Richard Mabey. This is a book that I’ve dipped into, mostly at this time of year, when the weeds in our garden begin to grow again. It is full of fascinating facts – a cultural history of weeds. Richard Mabey argues that ‘we have caused plants to become weeds because of our reckless treatment of the earth. They are part of nature’s immune system, of its instinctive drive to green over the barrenness of broken soil and decaying cities.

Plants become weeds when they obstruct our plans, or tidy maps of the world. If you have no such plans or maps, they can appear as innocents, without stigma or blame. My own discovery of them was my first close encounter with plants, and they seemed to me like a kind of manna.

The Friday 56 hosted by Freda’s Voice, where you grab a book and turn to page 56 (or 56% of an eBook), find one or more interesting sentences (no spoilers), and post them.

To gaze at Albrecht Durer’s extraordinary painting Large Piece of Turf (Das Grosse Rasenstuck, (1503) is to glimpse an imagination pierced through the artistic conventions and cultural assumptions of its time and projecting itself forward three centuries. This is painting’s discovery of ecology. This is any corner of any waste patch of land in the early twenty-first century, or at any time. This is a clump of weeds looked at with such reverent attention that they might have been the flowers of Elysium.

Durer’s painting is not reproduced in the book, but this is it:

Large Piece of Turf Durer 1503

I’ve had this book for ten years – I think it’s time I read it through from start to finish.