Vocabulary – Booking Through Thursday

Suggested by Nithin:

I’™ve always wondered what other people do when they come across a word/phrase that they’™ve never heard before. I mean, do they jot it down on paper so they can look it up later, or do they stop reading to look it up on the dictionary/google it or do they just continue reading and forget about the word?

A short answer today -it varies depending upon what I’™m reading. If I come across a word I don’™t know sometimes I try to think what it means by the context, especially if I’™m engrossed in the book and it would spoil it if I stopped to get the dictionary out. I may try to remember the word and look it up later to check I’™ve understood it properly. Other times I jot it down and look it up later, or if words keep cropping up that I don’™t know I’™ll get the dictionary out and have it handy for reference.

Sometimes I think I know just what a word means, but if you ask me for a definition I’™ll become a bit vague and say I’™ll have to look it up.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and the Candlelight Murders by Gyles Brandreth (published in the USA as Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance), John Murray Publishers Ltd, 2008, 355 pages).

I suppose you could call this book an ‘historical whodunit’. It’s set in 1889 – 1890, fin-de-siècle London and Paris and the mystery begins with Oscar Wilde finding the naked body of Billy Wood, a 16 year old boy in the candle-lit room in a small terraced house in Westminster, close to the Houses of Parliament. Billy’s throat has been cut and he is laid out as though on a funeral bier, surrounded by candles, with the smell of incense still in the air. It’s a combination of fiction and fact, with both real and imaginary characters. Wilde with the help of his friends Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Sherard sets out to solve the crime. Sherard (the great grandson of William Wordsworth) who wrote poems, novels, biographies (including five of Oscar Wilde) and social studies is the narrator.

The story reads quickly (so quickly that I didn’t want to stop to make notes as I read) and is full of colourful characters such as Gerard Bellotti, who runs an ‘informal luncheon club for gentlemen’. Bellotti is

‘grossly corpulent’ giving the impression of ‘a toad that sits and blinks, yet never moves’ wearing ‘an orange checked suit that would have done credit to the first comedian at Collins’ Music Hall and on the top of his onion-shaped head of oily hair, which was tightly curled and dyed the colour of henna, he sported a battered straw boater.’

Wilde is a fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories so much so that as the mystery is unravelled he picks up clues in the manner of Holmes, observing and deducing, exclaiming when questioned by Conan Doyle ‘Come, Arthur, this is elementary stuff -Holmes is where my heart is.’ I think it is this combination of fact and fiction that I enjoyed most in reading the book. I knew little about Wilde or Doyle and nothing about Sherard before reading it, but I think I learned a lot about all three people, about their characters, their views on life and love, and their works, as well as about the society in which they lived.

According to The Oscar Wilde Murder Mysteries website the book is peppered through with quotes from Wilde, or Brandreth’s versions of Wilde’s words, together with Brandreth’s own inventions. I couldn’t tell which was which, as I’ve only read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and seen a TV production of The Importance of Being Ernest, but it all seemed perfectly in character to me. I found the details of Wilde’s love for his wife Constance particularly interesting in contrast to his trial for gross indecency in 1895. In fact I came away from the book really liking Wilde and wanting to read more about him and by him. Fortunately the biographical notes at the end of the book give more details of works by and about Wilde, Conan Doyle and Sherard.

I didn’t find the mystery too difficult to work out, with lots of clues throughout the book, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. On the contrary it made it all the more pleasurable. The next book in the series, Oscar Wilde and the Ring of Death, is due out in the UK in May and in the USA, called Oscar Wilde and the Game of Murder, in September. Apparently there are seven more in the pipeline. That should mean I end up knowing an awful lot more about Oscar Wilde!

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.

Happy Birthday BooksPlease!

Today my blog is one year old.

Actually I set up the blog in July 2006 but I think of that as its conception because I didn’™t write another thing until 12 April 2007, when I left work. Then I wrote: ‘œI’ve been meaning to write more, both in this blog and in other writing, but somehow there’s always something else to do. Well, now I have time during the day and I will write.’

From a slow start I’ve been writing ever since ‘“ not every day but on average I write about 5 posts a week. But without help from my husband I’d never have got started and he’s always there to help with the technical stuff. I’ve enjoyed writing not only about the books I’ve been reading but also and the places I’ve visited. I really look forward to writing although the downside is that I actually read fewer books now than I did before I left work. The photo is the first one I put on the blog and I still haven’t read all these books! I’ve still got three of them I haven’t even started. It’s just so tempting reading about books other bloggers are enthusing over that I’m easily sidetracked. But I do mean to read Falling Angels, The Sixth Wife and After the Victorians before long.

Blogging is addictive – I love writing the blog, I love reading other people’™s blogs (I must expand my list on the sidebar because I read many more than are listed), and I love joining the challenges and linking up with other bloggers. It’™s been a good year.

Do You Want To Know the End?

I’™m reading C J Sansom’™s book Revelation. Don’™t worry there are no spoilers here!

This is the fourth in the Matthew Shardlake series and he’™s working on the case of a teenage boy held in the Bedlam Hospital for the insane (or is he possessed?) and also investigating a series of brutal murders. The murderer is using a chapter in the Book of Revelation as the pattern for the killings.

There’™s a lot more to say about this book, which will have to wait for a later post. I’™m about half way through the book and am wondering just who is the murderer ‘“ I’™m picking up clues, but are they red herrings? I’™m always tempted to turn to the end of the book and see who done it, but I don’™t want to.

But this morning I couldn’™t resist just a little peek. So just opening the book enough to see just a few words on the last page I read part of the last sentence ‘“ with my hand over the rest of the page ‘“

‘œOut there in a chapel in a palace, the King had finally married Catherine Parr.’

So no surprises there then!

Just a Glimpse of the Orient

On Monday D and I went for a walk with a friend alongside the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we enjoyed these views. This is the start of our walk.

The Wendover Arm was first constructed in 1797, but as sections of it leaked it was “de-watered”. From 1989 onwards it has been restored and this is what it looks like today.

Kingfishers can be seen along the canal, but we didn’t see any on Monday. There were lots of other birds though, ducks, moorhens, coots and dabchicks (otherwise known as little grebes), busy diving and collecting nest material.

The ducks were in fine form, taking off a high speed and then landing with legs flailing before splash-down.

Further along the canal we saw a swan sitting on a large nest over on the other side.


The canal opens up into an area known as the Wides, with areas of grass and shrubs with a tiny island on the far side. Trees have invaded what was once open water and without management the canal would disappear in a few years.

Then came a surprise – a pair of mandarin ducks. I’d never seen these before; they looked very different from the other birds on the canal, but just so beautiful. The male has very distinctive chestnut brown and orange fan wings sticking up above his body, whilst the female is a duller brown with white spots. They were swimming together in and out of the trees. When I came home I looked them up in our bird books. Originally from China these ducks like streams and overgrown lakesides in broad leaved woodland and they nest in tree cavities. The canal is the perfect place for them.


Writing Challenge – Booking Through Thursday

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question is another variation on the page 123 theme post I did yesterday! But it needs more thought!

Pick up the nearest book. (I’™m sure you must have one nearby.)
Turn to page 123.
What is the first sentence on the page?
The last sentence on the page?
Now . . . connect them together’¦.
(And no, you may not transcribe the entire page of the book’“that’™s cheating!)

Well, actually, the nearest books are a pile of unread books on the desk and because to answer this question I need to understand what has gone before page 123 I’m using the nearest book that I have read, which isn’t in the pile (it’s in another pile). It’s The Secret Garden and I wrote about that too yesterday (see here) and I haven’t put it back on the bookshelves yet.

The first sentence on page 123 is: Very soon afterwards a bell rang, and she rolled up her knitting.

The last sentence is: Colin was still frowning.

This is the scene in The Secret Garden the morning after Mary had met her cousin, Colin, whom she didn’t even know existed. She had found him the night before when she had heard him crying. He believes himself to be an invalid and has been allowed to do just what he likes all his life. The “she” in the first sentence is Martha, Mary’s maid. Martha and Colin’s nurse are both astonished at Mary’s effect on Colin and that he wants to see her. The nurse tells Martha that Mary has bewitched Colin and that he has demanded that she visit him again as he has been thinking about her all the morning. Mary goes to see him and tells him that Martha is terrified that she will lose her job because Mary has met Colin – his existence was being kept secret from Mary. Frowning, Colin orders Martha to be brought into his presence and is still frowning when Martha comes in shaking in her shoes in fear of what he will do and say.

He could easily fly into a tantrum, hates people to look at him and all the servants feared his rages. He has the power to dismiss them from his father’s house.

Of course you’ll have to turn the page over to read what happens next.