Catching Up

I’ve found that this lockdown period has affected my blogging as I haven’t been writing about the books I’ve read recently. I’ve been doing posts that don’t really need much concentration – lists of books, book beginnings and so on. So now I have a few books that I’ve read but not reviewed. Here’s what I thought about two of them. These are just brief reviews – more like notes really.

Queen Lucia

Queen Lucia has been on my radar for years ever since I began blogging and I bought a copy several years ago. When I saw that Simon and Karen were hosting the 1920 Club I realised it would be ideal as it was first published in 1920. However, time got the better of me and I finished reading it too late to add it the 1920 Book Club – but better late than never. 

I know other bloggers love E F Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books, but they have never really appealed to me. I don’t read many comic novels. But I did enjoy it more than I thought I would, although I think his style of writing is an acquired taste, using satire, irony, exaggerations and ridicule to expose people’s stupidities or vices – not my usual genre of books.  However, it is easy reading and it took my mind off the horrors of the coronavirus whilst I was reading. It is a book of its time and definitely not PC by today’s standards.

Queen Lucia is actually Mrs Emmeline Lucas, who presides over the residents of the village of Riseholme as its self-appointed queen. She is a most unlikeable character, totally self-centred and manipulative, aided by her friend, George Pillson who worships her. But as the events described in the novel unfold he rebels and works to undermine her. I disliked her pretentious tastes and her lust for power. She irritated me immensely with her baby talk, her pretence that she can speak Italian and her methods of riding roughshod over everyone. A rather more sympathetic character is Daisy Quantock, who introduces a mysterious Indian guru to the village before Lucia managed to present him as her protege.

The whole book has an artificial and silly feel about it but about half way through I found I was just going with the flow as I really  wanted to know what happened next. There are five more Mapp and Lucia novels, and as I’ve found an e-book containing all six for just 49p – Make Way for Lucia, I shall probably read more of them sometime.

The Dutch House

I decided to read The Dutch House by Ann Patchett as so many other bloggers have written glowing reviews, but I wasn’t as keen on it as others. Its about a dysfunctional family.  The Conroys, Danny, Maeve and their mother, Elna and father, Cyril  who lived in the Dutch House, but when Danny was just three his mother left home.  Cyril remarried, and his second wife, Andrea, the mother of two young girls, was the epitome of the  wicked stepmother. When their father dies he leaves the Dutch House, to Andrea.  She shows her true  colours and insists Danny and Maeve have to move out of their home. The house itself is described in detail. It was built by a Dutch couple called VanHoebeek in 1922 when it was in the open country just outside Philadelphia and their presence is still a strong influence on  the Conroy family.

The novel moves backwards and forwards in time, from 1946 to the present, and at times I was not sure what happened when (probably my lack of concentration caused my confusion). Danny and Maeve are both obsessed with the house, to the detriment of their own lives. Their mother, Elna meanwhile had a totally different reaction to the house, never liking it and I was intrigued about her – what made her leave her children – and I was suspicious about that had happened to her and even if she was she still alive. The pain her children felt when she left to be replaced by a wicked stepmother is immense. But it is the loss of their inheritance rather than the loss of their mother, that has left them with bitterness, and anger.

I thought the book began well, but somewhere in the middle and definitely towards the end I did get rather bored with the story, so much so that I was relieved to finish it. It was not just such a good choice of book for me – or maybe it was the wrong time for me to read it.

Latest e-book additions at BooksPlease

We’re in self isolation right now and one of the things I’m hoping to do is to spend more time than usual reading. And one of the best things about reading e-books is that you don’t have to go out of the house or meet anyone to get them. 

The Overstory by Richard Powers – this was my Mother’s Day present from my son.

An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crewmember in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.

This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.

The Feather Thief : Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century by Kirk Wallace Johnson – I’ve been watching Chris Packham’s daily live broadcasts and this is one of the books that he recommended.

One summer evening in 2009, twenty-year-old musical prodigy Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum at Tring, home to one of the largest ornithological collections in the world. Once inside, Rist grabbed as many rare bird specimens as he was able to carry before escaping into the darkness.

Kirk Wallace Johnson was waist-deep in a river in New Mexico when his fly-fishing guide first told him about the heist. But what would possess a person to steal dead birds? And had Rist paid for his crime? In search of answers, Johnson embarked upon a worldwide investigation, leading him into the fiercely secretive underground community obsessed with the Victorian art of salmon fly-tying.

Was Edwin Rist a genius or narcissist? Mastermind or pawn?

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – Longlisted for the Women’s Prize 2020. I’d reserved this at the library, but as it’s now closed I decided to buy the e-book!

Danny Conroy grows up in the Dutch House, a lavish mansion. Though his father is distant and his mother is absent, Danny has his beloved sister Maeve: Maeve, with her wall of black hair, her wit, her brilliance. Life is coherent, played out under the watchful eyes of the house’s former owners in the frames of their oil paintings.

Then one day their father brings Andrea home. Though they cannot know it, her arrival to the Dutch House sows the seed of the defining loss of Danny and Maeve’s lives. The siblings are drawn back time and again to the place they can never enter, knocking in vain on the locked door of the past. For behind the mystery of their own exile is that of their mother’s: an absence more powerful than any presence they have known.

Told with Ann Patchett’s inimitable blend of humour, rage and heartbreak, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale and story of a paradise lost; of the powerful bonds of place and time that magnetize and repel us for our whole lives.

First Chapter, First Paragraph: State of Wonder

First chapterEvery Tuesday Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea hosts First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros to share the first paragraph sometimes two, of a book that she’s reading or planning to read soon.

This week I’m looking at State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, one of my TBR books on my Kindle and thinking of reading it next.

State of Wonder

It begins:

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served both as the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? The single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world. Mr Fox had the letter in his hand when he came to the lab to tell Marina the news. When she saw him there at the door she smiled at him and in the light of that smile he faltered.

“What?” she said finally.

He opened his mouth and then closed it. When he tried again all he could say was, “It’s snowing.”

Blurb:

Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women for ever. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery; she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate.
A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns.

Now Marina Singh, Anders’ colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders’s wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr. Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest.

What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination.

Marina is no longer the student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough.

I can see why I bought this book – but why haven’t I read it yet? It looks so good. What do you think – would you keep reading?

Book Beginnings: Run by Ann Patchett

Way back in 2008 I read The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett and because I enjoyed it I wanted to read more of her books. The Magician’s Assistant is about families with strongly drawn characters and from the opening of Run it looks as though it too has family as its theme.

Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back. They had no legal claim to it, of course, she would never have thought of leaving it to them, but the statue had been in their family for four generations, passing down the maternal line from mother to daughter, and it was their intention to hold with tradition. Bernadette had no daughters.

Further down the opening page it seems that Bernadette had an uncanny resemblance to the statue, which looked like her, ‘as if she had modeled in a blue robe with a halo stuck to the back of her head.’ The opening leads me into the story, making me want to read on.

Ann Patchett’s latest novel State of Wonder is shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for Fiction – the winner will be announced on 30 May. Her novel Bel Canto was the 2002 Orange Prize winner.

For more Book Beginnings on Friday see Gilion’s blog Rose City Reader.