Favourite Books: August 2007 – 2010

I’ve been really enjoying looking back at some of my favourite books and this month I’m  looking back at some I read in August in each of the years 2007 ‘“ 2010. Click on the titles to see my original reviews.

Looking back at these books makes me want to re-read each one. I was enthralled by them all:

2007

There is so much I loved in Season of the Witch by Natasha Mostert, a thrilling, spine tingling story of mystery, mysticism and magic, abounding with symbolism. It’s a modern day gothic epic, mixing computer technology with witchcraft, alchemy and the power of the human mind, in the search for enlightenment.

I raced through the book with that nervous tension anticipating danger that you feel watching a horror film build up, leaving me breathless as I read.

Gabriel Blackstone is a computer hacker by trade, and by inclination he is a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to ‘˜slam rides’ through the thought processes of others. He is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find Ronnie, her stepson, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters, Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk (wonderful names). The beautiful and mysterious sisters are descendants of Dr John Dee, a mathematical genius, alchemist and secret adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Both of them bewitch Gabriel as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind Robbie’s disappearance.

2008

August 2008 found me reading a completely different genre – Pompeii by Robert Harris is historical fiction. The story begins in August AD 79 just two days before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and builds up to a climax. Whilst most people are blissfully unaware of what is about to be unleashed upon them one man ‘“ the engineer Marius Attilius Primus realises the danger when the aqueduct Aqua Augusta fails to supply water to the people in the nine towns around the Bay of Naples. Then Vesuvius erupts destroying the town of Pompeii and killing its inhabitants as they tried to flee the pumice, ash and searing heat and flames.

The book brought history to life and I could feel the danger and fear as Vesuvius inevitably destroyed Pompeii. I particularly liked mixture of fictional and historical characters and the inclusion of Pliny, then the Admiral of the Fleet, as he watched and recorded the progress of the eruption and the account of his death.

2009

In August 2009 I read The Rebecca Notebook and Other Memories which gives a glimpse into the mind of Daphne Du Maurier. Rebecca has long been one of my favourite books, so I was fascinated to read the notes she made as she was writing the book. She began to write Rebecca in 1937 when she was thirty years old, living in Alexandria and feeling homesick for Cornwall. She jotted down chapter summaries in a notebook, setting the book in the mid 1920s ‘˜about a young wife and her slightly older husband, living in a beautiful house that had been in his family for generations.’

As she thought about it ideas sprang to her mind ‘“ a first wife ‘“ jealousy, something terrible would happen ‘“ a wreck at sea. She became immersed in the story, losing herself in the plot, as so many of us have done ever since.

I enjoyed the other short pieces in this book ‘“ her ‘˜memories’ of her family and her own life and beliefs. Some are about her family, some about her childhood and some about the house she loved, Menabilly.

2010

Finally in August 2010 I read Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer, one of the best books I read that year. I was engrossed in it right from the start. It’s tense, taut and utterly enthralling. Moving at a fast pace the book follows the events during the thirteen hours from 05:36 when Rachel, a young American girl is running for her life up the steep slope of Lion’s Head in Capetown.

The body of another American girl is found outside the Lutheran church in Long Street and an hour or so later Alexandra Barnard, a former singing star and an alcoholic, wakes from a drunken stupor to find the dead body of her husband, a record producer, lying on the floor opposite her and his pistol lying next to her.

Meyer is a fantastic story teller and creates such wonderful characters. DI Benny Griessel is mentoring two inexperienced detectives who are investigating these crimes. I grew very fond of Benny, who is also an alcoholic and struggling to keep his marriage together.  The book also reflects the racial tension in the ‘˜new South Africa’ with its mix of white, coloured and black South Africans. There is a strong sense of location, not just from the cultural aspect but also geographical.

Season of the Witch – Natasha Mostert

I first read about this book on Ann’s blog, Patternings and thought it would be one I would enjoy, so when a friend gave me a book token for my birthday I bought it. Many thanks to both of you – this is an excellent book. I’ve read so many good books recently I seem to be saying that a lot.

Season of the Witch is a thrilling, spine tingling story of mystery, mysticism and magic, abounding with symbolism. It’s a modern day gothic epic, mixing computer technology with witchcraft, alchemy and the power of the human mind, in the search for enlightenment.

The book jacket gives a good summary of the Season of the Witch:

‘Gabriel Blackstone is a cool, hip, thoroughly twenty-first century Londoner with an unusual talent. A computer hacker by trade, he is – by inclination- a remote viewer; someone whose unique gifts enable him to ‘slam rides’ through the thought processes of others.

But reading people’s minds is something he does only with the greatest reluctance – until he is contacted by an ex-lover who begs him to use his gift to find her stepson, last seen months earlier in the company of two sisters.

And so Gabriel visits Monk House in Chelsea, a place where time seems to stand still.’

The mystery of Robbie’s disappearance leads Gabriel into breaking into Monk House and there are many passages which I felt I had to race through to prevent him from being discovered; that nervous tension anticipating danger that you feel watching a horror film build up leaving me breathless as I read.

I find it hard when reading a book to take notes at the same time as it breaks the flow of my reading and then I struggle to pinpoint exactly what I particularly liked and where in the narrative things occurred. The pace of this book was making me read so fast that I knew I had to slow down or I’d never remember anything except that I liked it. So every now and then I stopped to take stock and after about 100 pages I did start to jot down some page references.

Minnaloushe and Morrighan Monk (wonderful names), the beautiful mysterious sisters are descendants of Dr John Dee, a mathematical genius, alchemist and secret adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Minnaloushe similarly is a mathematical genius who constructs a ‘memory palace’ a mental aid to enhance the memory in the Renaissance tradition. Morrighan is the strong, athletic, risk taker. Both of them bewitch Gabriel as he seeks to unravel the mystery behind Robbie’s disappearance.

The connection to Dee reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee which moves between London of the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, sometimes with no clear distinction between the two, and is about Dee’s alleged attempt to kill Queen Mary by sorcery and the secrets of love and power. Mostert’s book is also about the power of the mind; and the seduction of obsession and love, combined with the concept of alchemy, not only being used to turn lead into gold but as the means to enlightenment. Morrighan says,

Alchemy is really the transformation of the spirit into a higher form of consciousness. Enlightenment. Coming face to face with God and discovering His motivations for creating the universe and your own place within it.

One of the themes that interested me is that of memory, so when I read ‘ we forget what we’ve read almost as soon as we’ve read it’, I couldn’t agree more. The memory palace was a technique originating with the ancient Greeks, which was later developed by alchemists and Gnostics during the Renaissance. A form of mnemonics. These days we use so many aids to memory that don’t actually involve remembering, so much as finding out where to find information. We don’t commit things to memory so much as people did in the past – our minds are shrinking, a horrible thought. It comes as no surprise to find out that the sisters’ mother had Alzheimer’s, which triggered Minnaloushe’s interest in the subject of memory.

Minnaloushe’s hypothesis is that ‘Man’s soul is inextricably bound to his power of recollection.’ This is a disturbing thought and I remembered my feeling of dis-ease when reading Deborah Wearing’s biographical account of her husband Clive’s amnesia in Forever Today. A virus attacked his brain destroying that part essential for memory, leaving him trapped in a limbo of the constant present. He had been a BBC music producer and conductor and the musical part of his brain seemed unaffected as well as his love for his wife. The constant repetition of the same thing over and over is harrowing, every moment was new and every thought the same. Eventually his memory began to improve.

I’m also reading The Remainder by Tom McCarthy, another novel on the themes of memory, amnesia and identity. I’m finding this hard going at the moment as it seems to be going over and over the same ideas, reflecting the state of mind of the main character as he tries to regain his memory. As I haven’t finished it all I can say now is that it’s a disturbing book and I found myself thinking this is just not real – strange really considering I can easily accept complete fantasy as ‘real’.

Season of a Witch is a book that leads me to thinking of other books, not just the ones I’ve mentioned but also David Shenk’s The Forgetting: understanding Alzheimer’s: the biography of a disease. This is a remarkable book about the wasting away of the mind, inside a still vigorous body. I read this a few years ago when we thought my mother-in-law might have it – she didn’t, but she had dementia which is very similar in its effects. Looking at it today I think I’d like to read it again. Adam Phillips in the preface refers to reconsidering our relationship with time as Alzheimer’s is about living in (and so for) the moment. ‘Out of fear of mortality we have idealised health and youth and competence. The Forgetting reminds us, among many other things, that there is more to life than all that.’

Another reason this has piqued my interest again is Shenk’s account of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s senile dementia, and because of Stefanie’s posts on Emerson at So Many Books I know more about him than when I read Shenk’s book.

This post has digressed from its original topic but I’m so glad I read Season of the Witch – a compelling read, which has given me much to ponder and led me back to other books and forward to yet others. I see that Natasha Mostert has written other books – see here for more information. This is the first book of hers I’ve read but it will not be the last.