Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott – R.I.P. Challenge II

On the cover Iain Pears describes Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott as ‘a compelling contemporary love story and a fascinating historical investigation.’I’ll add to this that it is a tale of the supernatural concerning two mysteries – one from the present day and one from the 17th century, where the past and the present are seen to overlap.

As indicated by the title the book is haunted by ghosts. It’s also full of alchemy, mysterious figures, quantum physics and animal liberation campaigns. All of which make a potent mixture. This is the second book I’ve read recently with alchemy as a theme – see The Season of the Witch, here.

It is set in Cambridge, following the death of Elizabeth Vogelsang, a reclusive historian, found floating in the river that runs through her orchard, clutching an antique glass prism in one hand. Was it suicide, or was she murdered? Cameron, her son a neuroscientist, asks Lydia Brooke (formerly they were lovers) to finish writing his mother’s book about the 17th century and Isaac Newton’s involvement with alchemy. Lydia moves into Elizabeth’s house – a strange house full of light moving upon the walls, flickering, appearing and disappearing for no apparent reason. Lydia explains:

Light that looks like water- as if it’s reflected off a bowl of water. Rainbows that appear in little stubs that stretch out till they disappear, really slowly. I’ve tried photographing them but my camera doesn’t seem to be good enough to catch them.

The book moves in time between the present day and the future as well as the past. Life is seen as a palimpsest, layers of time overlapping and interweaving. It’s narrated by Lydia, who finds herself heading back into a relationship with Cameron, as she looks back on the events that lead up to a court case and into a series of mysterious deaths in the 17th century. At first I found it somewhat puzzling and fragmentary – who was being addressed and who is on trial, how did the animal liberation campaign fit in, what was Newton’s involvement, who was responsible for the deaths and how or if they were connected to the present day?

The image of ground elder with its tenacious roots joining a ‘great network of root systems underground’ indicates the connections that will be revealed as the story unfolds, once Lydia starts digging into the past. The paranormal is added to the mix through Elizabeth’s friend Dilys Kite, a psychic, who reminded me of Hilary Mantel’s character Alison in Beyond Black, who Lydia consults in an attempt to find out more about the past than is revealed in written sources. The interconnection theme is continued in the theories of quantum physics, with the mystery of how particles of light and energy, and time and space are intricately entangled.

The setting is brought to life through Stott’s beautiful descriptions of Cambridge, invoking the smells of the medieval fair, the colours along the River Cam and the landscape of the Fens. Colour and light play a large part in the book; a description I particularly like is this of the river:

Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hips, pyracanthas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows.

A book to read and savour on many different levels.

Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Crow Lake is one of those books that stick in my mind long after I’d finished reading it. I borrowed it from the library and wish I’d bought it, as it’s a book I’d like to re-read in the future. I read it quickly and didn’t make many notes, which means that I was too engrossed in my reading to jot down points of interest. In fact I just wanted to read on and on and was sorry when I finished it.

It tells the story of a family of four children living at Crow Lake in the north of Canada in an isolated house miles away from any town, with just a few other families in the vicinity. The narrator is Kate Morrison and the story unfolds as she looks back on her life, triggered by an invitation to her nephew’s 18th birthday party. When she was seven her parents were killed in a car crash, leaving her, her baby sister and two teenage brothers, orphaned. The trauma of their parents’death affects the children in different ways and as Kate looks back on the events that followed she begins to see that not everything was as it seemed to her at the time.

Things that struck me as I read this book were thoughts about the nature of memories; the difficulties of understanding other people and feeling empathy; the relationship between character and destiny; and the concepts of free will and choice as opposed to being carried along by fate.

Kate has bottled up her memories thinking she has put the past behind her. But it’s not that easy, because years later when she received the invitation and saw her brother Matt’s handwriting she realised it was all still there, simmering away at the back of her mind:

I got the same old ache, centred more or less mid-chest, a heavy, dull pain, like mourning. In all those years it hadn’t lessened a bit.

From that point on, she goes back over the chain of events that had led to the tragedy linking her family with the Pye family who lived about a mile from the Morrisons and were their nearest neighbours and to Kate’s alienation from her family and Crow Lake.

The book focuses on Kate’s relationship with her brother Matt, in particular, but there are also wonderful descriptions of her baby sister Bo, with her independent defiant attitude and her oldest brother Luke, who sacrifices his career to look after his sisters. In addition the complex relationship Kate has with Dan Crane and his parents reflects the difficulties she has in coming to terms with herself and her family. Combine these memorable characters with the beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds and the result is a memorable and lyrical novel.

Booking Through Thursday – Sunshine and Roses

Sunshine and Roses

The reverse of last week’™s question:

Imagine that everything is going just swimmingly. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all’™s right with the world. You’™re practically bouncing from health and have money in your pocket. The kids are playing and laughing, the puppy is chewing in the cutest possible manner on an officially-sanctioned chew toy, and in between moments of laughter for pure joy, you pick up a book to read . . .

What is it?

This is quite difficult to answer, but I think that I’d read a book I’ve not read before, probably by an author I like, such as Margaret Atwood. A couple of books that I would like to read again are Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase and M Scott Peck’s In Search of Stones. Both are books that I read with anticipation and they lived up to my expectations. Both are personal accounts of the authors’ beliefs and spiritual journeys.

The funny thing is that although I’ve got piles of unread books sometimes I can’t find the right one to read next and end up starting a few and feeling that they’re just not quite right. Then I pick up a book in a bookshop or the library and it’s the right one for that moment. The book I’m currently reading, Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson is a beautiful, but sad book (so far) and it’s just right at the moment, but if I was feeling sad myself it would probably make me feel worse.

Some books are hard to read because they’re so moving and I thought of Hannah’s Gift by Maria Housden when I first read this question, because it’s a book that I just couldn’t read if I was depressed. It’s the story of a mother’s three year old daughter’s illness and death and it is heartbreaking. It made me cry and I just had to stop reading it; I picked it up later because I felt I had to know the end.

Footballers’ books – to read or not to read?

D finished reading David Beckham’s autobiography My Side yesterday and wondered if I’d like to read it too. He’s also read Paul McGrath’s Back from the Brink and next on his list is Peter Schmeichel’s The Autobiography.

He thinks I’d prefer McGrath’s book. From the covers I think I’d rather read Scheimeichel’s – he looks much happier.

My knowledge of football is a bit limited but having lived with Manchester United supporters all my life through my dad, husband and son I must have absorbed something. And, of course, there were the glorious footballing years when my son played football from age 11 to his going to university and D and I were there on the touchline every weekend during the season, cheering him on. My feet were frozen, the middle of my back was aching from the cold striking up from the ground – they played whatever the weather, but I wouldn’t have missed any of it. I only remember one match that was called off because the ground was too frozen. I did enjoy it, even when parents occasionally had to be warned by the referee that they would be sent off if they didn’t stop arguing – great fun. The best thing about it of course was seeing my son play. somehow I can’t quite summon up as much enthusiasm for football on TV.

I ‘m going to give these books a go at least, if only to see what they’re like.

Library Books

At the weekend Danielle posted a Library Meme. What do you have checked out from the library? So here’s my list. The photo above is of the latest books I borrowed a few days ago.

  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker, shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I’ve started this one, but so far I’ve not found it too riveting, but then I’m only up to page 24. It’s so long and so, so heavy (in weight, that is), not for reading in bed. I’m not going to finish this before the Booker Prize is announced.
  • The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad. A friend recommended this a while ago.
  • The Daphne Du Maurier Companion edited by Helen Taylor. This has interviews with her family, essays by contemporary authors and a long-lost short story by Du Maurier. I’ve read the short story “And His Letters Grew Colder” – it’s sad.
  • Astrid and Veronika by Linda Olsson. I found this in the “1st Novel Collection” and sat down in the library to start reading. There are some comfy chairs, which are spread around the library, which are ideal for browsing whilst you decide what to borrow. This looks very good. It set in Sweden, where Veronika, a young writer arrives seeking stillness and solitude. She is observed by her elderly, reclusive neighbour, Astrid. Eventually they become friends and confide their secrets.

I’ve also got these books on loan:

  • Lewis Carroll by Cohen Morton. I’m currently reading about a chapter a day of this. I’ve just got up to Chapter 5 ‘The Alice Books’, which is about the writing and publication of the books in the 1860s.
  • Crow Lake by Mary Lawson -I’ve finished this one and enjoyed it very much. I’ll write about it soon.
  • Four Letters of Love by Niall Williams, because I enjoyed As it is in Heaven.
  • Generals Die in Bed: a novel from the trenches by Charles Yale Harrison. I borrowed this because I’m interested in reading a novel about the Western Front. It’s short book, so it shouldn’t take too long to read.
  • The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite authors.
  • The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. I ploughed my way through his Poe Shadow, which was interesting although parts were a bit tedious. This another quite long book – but not as long as Darkmans.
  • Digital Photography for Seniors in Easy Steps by Nick Vandome – I need some help. My photos are a bit hit and miss.
  • Ancestors of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. I read her Mists of Avalon a few years ago. This is about the fall of Atlantis and the origins of Stonehenge.
  • Ghostwalk by Rachel Stott. I’ve finished this – another good book, which I’m going to post about.
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Ann recommended this. I’ve read it many years ago and enjoyed it then, so when I saw it in the library I picked it up.
  • Emerson’s Essays. This is an Everyman’s Library edition first published in 1906. I found it in the Reserve Stock (where they keep books that supposedly aren’t borrowed very much. This book was last checked out in July 2005). Stefanie’s posts on Emerson led me to this book.

Fortunately, unless someone else has reserved it you can renew a book 6 times on-line before you have to take it back in and if it has been reserved and you haven’t finished it you can reserve it at no charge! Wonderful. I’d never get through this lot in 3 weeks.

TV dramatisation of Cranford by Mrs Gaskell

Coming up on the BBC this autumn is Cranford by Mrs Gaskell, starring Dame Judi Dench and a whole host of stars, including Dame Eileen Atkins, Julia McKenzie, Barbara Flynn, Julia Sawalha and Imelda Staunton. Set in the fictional town of Cranford, a small Cheshire town based on Knutsford (where Mrs Gaskell grew up), the 5 part drama was filmed on location in various places including Lacock Village in Wiltshire (as the setting for Cranford), the Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire in the Chilterns (also used in the Harry Potter films)and the Buckinghamshire village of West Wycombe owned by the National Trust.

Cranford is based on three of Elizabeth Gaskell’s works, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions and I see from Amazon that The Cranford Chronicles is to be published on 4 October to tie-in with the TV series.

The National Trust Autumn Magazine has an article “The Dame Game” about the filming at the NT locations, with some great photos of the actors and the settings. At the moment the Summer Magazine is available to look at on-line, so I expect that eventually the Autumn Magazine will be too.

The Gaskell Web has lots of information on Elizabeth Gaskell plus photographs of present day Knutsford as well as prints of Knutsford Past, with connections to her life and works. These photos are of St John’s Parish Church, where Elizabeth married Rev William Gaskell in 1832 and of the Old Vicarage.

I read Cranford at school and haven’t looked at it since, so I’ll be able to watch the series without many preconceived ideas about the characters and the story, although as I used to live near Knutsford, no doubt I’ll be comparing Lacock to my memories of Knutsford. It’s to be broadcast on BBC1 this autumn – I can’t find a precise date on the television listings yet. One to look out for.

Nice Matters


Nan gave me the Nice Matters Award back in August. I’™m sorry it’™s taken so long to write about it, Nan, but I’™ve been thinking about posting about it since then. Nice Matters can be thought of in different ways ‘“ ‘œnice’ things, or the significance and importance of being ‘œnice’.

The dictionary definition of ‘œnice’ includes ‘œagreeable, delightful, respectable, good in any way, something done with great care and exactness, accurate, and good-natured.’ So I’™ll disregard and indeed ignore one of my English teachers at school who told us not to use the word ‘œnice’ as she thought it was a neutral word and didn’™t signify much at all. The concept of ‘œNiceness’ is good and it does indeed matter.

I am honoured, Nan ‘“ thank you. I don’™t know Nan personally but judging from her blog I think that she is a thoroughly nice person.