Favourite Books: September 2007 – 2010

Each month I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite books I read during the years 2007 – 2010. These are some of my favourite books I read in September in each of those years. September seems to have been a great month for books as I rated so many 5/5, but I’m highlighting just one for each month in this post. Revisiting these books makes me want to re-read all of them.

Click on the titles to see my original reviews.

2007


Crow Lake by Mary Lawson – this 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.

Convincing characters combined with beautiful descriptions of Crow Lake and its ponds make this a memorable and lyrical novel.

2008

The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates made a great impression on me in 2008 and I wrote three posts about it – see here and here for the first two and here for my final thoughts.

This is a melodramatic and memorable book depicting a grim, dark world, a violent and pessimistic world, gothic and grotesque. In some ways it reminds me of Hardy’s novels ‘“ you know something terrible will happen whatever the characters do to try to avert tragedy.

The main character is Rebecca Schwart, born in New York Harbor, the daughter of Jacob and Anna escaping from Nazi Germany in 1936. They live a life of abject poverty whilst Jacob can only find work as a caretaker of Milburn Cemetery, a non-demoninational cemetery at the edge of the town.

Soon the town’s prejudice and the family’s own emotional frailty results in unspeakable tragedy. In the wake of this loss, and in an attempt to put her past behind her, Rebecca moves on, across America and through a series of listless marriages, in search of somewhere, and someone, to whom she can belong.

The ending both surprised and touched me enormously.

2009

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear – the third book in her Maisie Dobbs series. This one is set in 1930 when Maisie is asked by Sir Cecil Lawton to prove that his son, Ralph really did die in 1917 during the First World War. Sir Cecil’s wife, who had recently died, had been convinced that Ralph was still alive and on her deathbed made him promise to search for their son. This takes Maisie on a traumatic and dangerous trip to France ‘“ to the battlefields where she had been a nurse.

I like the Maisie Dobbs books. They’re easy to read, but not simple, the plots are nicely complicated and Maisie’s own story is seamlessly interwoven with the mystery. They give a good overall impression of the period, describing what people were wearing, the contrast between the rich and the poor and the all-pervading poisonous London smog. The horror of the War is still strong, people are still grieving for friends and relations killed or missing, visiting the battlefields and working to improve life for the soldiers who had returned home injured, and for the homeless children forced into life on the streets.

2010

The Fall by Simon Mawer – beautifully written, I was enthralled by this book. This is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later and also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked.

The narrative moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless ‘“ Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers ‘“ Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer 

Synopsis from Amazon:

Cool. Balanced. Modern. The precisions of science, the wild variance of lust, the catharsis of confession and the fear of failure – these are things that happen in The Glass Room.

High on a Czechoslovak hill, the Landauer House shines as a wonder of steel and glass and onyx built specially for newlyweds Viktor and Liesel Landauer, a Jew married to a gentile. But the radiant honesty of 1930 that the house, with its unique Glass Room, seems to engender quickly tarnishes as the storm clouds of WW2 gather, and eventually the family must flee, accompanied by Viktor’s lover and her child.

But the house’s story is far from over, and as it passes from hand to hand, from Czech to Russian, both the best and the worst of the history of Eastern Europe becomes somehow embodied and perhaps emboldened within the beautiful and austere surfaces and planes so carefully designed, until events become full-circle.

The house and its setting are not fictional, but are based on the Tugendhat House, Brno in the Czech Republic. A few of the characters are non-fictional but the rest are imaginary and their story has no basis in fact. In his introduction to the Abacus edition of the book, published in 2013, Simon Mawer describes his first visit to the house, which was then a museum. He hadn’t planned to write a novel centred on the house. To him is not a museum, but ‘vibrant and alive’, and the novel was born.

I found it a gripping novel that had me on tenterhooks as I was reading. It is, as the synopsis relates, the story of a house, the Landauer House, and specifically of a room within that house called the ‘Glass Room’.

Liesel and Viktor stood and marvelled at it [the Glass Room]. It had become a palace of light, light bouncing off the chrome pillars, light refulgent on the walls, light glistening on the dew in the gardens, light reverberating from the glass. It was as though they stood inside a crystal of salt. Isn’t it wonderful,’ she exclaimed, looking round with an expression of amazement. ‘You feel so free, so unconstrained. The sensation of space, of all things being possible. Don’t you think it is wonderful, Viktor? Don’t you think that Rainer has created a masterpiece for us?’ (pages 64-5)

The whole wall of the lower ground floor is plate glass. The room is a huge space, white walls, furnished with little decoration beyond a piano, specially designed chairs in the sitting area in front of an onyx wall veined with amber and honey, polished to a mirror-like gloss, reflecting the light, and a circular dining table in the dining area enclosed in a semicircle partition of Macassar wood.

But it was the story of the people who lived/worked in the house that captivated me and made me so anxious for them and about what would happen to them as the events of the Second World War and beyond overtook their lives. It’s not only a gripping novel, but also a beautifully written book with interesting and likeable characters, set in a Europe at war and its aftermath; and a book about architecture, ideas, about love and loss, about prejudice and persecution. A deeply moving and haunting book.

I’ve read two of Simon Mawer’s earlier books, The Gospel of Judas (2000) and The Fall (2003), both of which I also thoroughly enjoyed. He has also written:

Chimera (1989)
The Bitter Cross (1992)
A Place in Italy (1992)
A Jealous God (1996)
Mendel’s Dwarf (1997)
Swimming to Ithaca (2006)
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky (2012)
aka Trapeze
Tightrope (2015)

For more details see his website.

The Glass Room is my 27th book for Bev’s Mount TBR 2016 challenge and the 5th book I’ve read in the 20 Books of Summer Challenge.

The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction

I’m currently reading The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, so I’m delighted to see that he has won the £25,000 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction for his novel Tightrope.


Tightrope follows Marian Sutro, who has survived Ravensbruck and is back in dreary London trying to pick up the pieces of her post-War life. It is Simon Mawer’s tenth novel; his seventh,The Glass Room, was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize in 2010.

Wondrous Words Wednesday

Wondrous Words Wednesday, run by Kathy (Bermudaonion),  is a weekly meme where we share new (to us) words that we’ve encountered in our reading.

My words this week are from The Fall by Simon Mawer. This is a novel involving rock climbing and mountaineering:

Exiguous – I thought I should know this word but I couldn’t work out the meaning from this sentence, so I looked it up – ‘She reached the edge and there he was around the corner taking in the rope as she moved on to his exiguous ledge.’ (page 144) Exiguous means ‘scanty’ or ‘slender’. In this context I’d say it means ‘narrow’.

Solecism another word I’m sure I’ve looked up before, but I couldn’t define it. People looked at one another nervously, as though to move would be to commit a solecism. (page 248) Solecism means an absurdity, impropriety, incongruity; a breach of good manners or etiquette. Also a breach of syntax or nonstandard grammatical usage.

Hieraticthis sentence didn’t make sense to me if I took hieratic to be something to do with ‘hierarchy’. ‘The gesture seemed almost hieratic, a mixture of farewell and blessing.’ (page 305) Hieratic means priestly.


Hematocrit He’d got big lungs had Jamie, and a strong heart and tough arteries, a high lactate threshold and high hematocrit; all the physical and physiological qualities that you need to go high.’ (page 396) Hematocrit means a graduated capillary tube in which the blood is centrifuged to determine the ratio, by volume, of blood cells to plasma. Still not sure what it means – something to do with the amount of red blood cells in the blood which if you have a lot – more than the average – helps when climbing to high altitude.


Ogive – ‘The coroner’s court was as solemn as a Welsh chapel – might have been a chapel once, in fact, with its ogive windows and steeply pitched roof .’ (page 414) this is another word that I felt I should know, but didn’t. Ogive means either a diagonal rib of a vault or a pointed arch or window.

Definitions taken from The Chambers Dictionary.

Sunday Salon – Current Books

I finished reading The Fall by Simon Mawer yesterday. It is the story of Rob Dewar and Jamie Matthewson from their childhood up to Jamie’s death 40 years later. But it’s also the story of their parents and how their lives are interlinked. I found it enthralling, one of those books that make me want to look at the ending to see how it all turns out. I managed to stop myself, however, and read impatiently to the end anxious to know what actually happened between them all.

It moves between the two generations beginning in the present day, when Rob hears on the news that Jamie, a renowned mountaineer has fallen to his death in Snowdonia. No one is sure whether it was an accident or suicide. Then it moves  back 40 years to the time when the two boys met, both fatherless – Jamie’s dad, Guy went missing when climbing Kangchenjunga and Rob’s parents are divorced, and back yet further again to 1940 when Guy Matthewson met the boys’ mothers – Meg (later calling herself Caroline) and Diana. And so  the drama unfolds in the mountains of Wales and the Alps, culminating on the North Face of the Eiger.

The Fall is not just a gripping account of the dangers of rock climbing and mountaineering, but it’s also a love story, with the intricacies of relationships, and love, loss and betrayal at its core. The love stories and the climbing scenes are both shown through the imagery of falling with all its ambiguities – actual falls, falling in love, falling pregnant and falling from grace. It’s beautifully written, capturing not only the mountain landscape but also London during the Blitz. This is the second excellent book by Mawer that I’ve read, even though it has a rather predictable ending.

I’m still reading Agatha Christie’s  An Autobiography and will be for some time as it is long and detailed – 550 pages printed in a very small font, which makes it impossible for me to read it in bed. But it is fascinating. It’s not just an account of her life but is full of her thoughts and questions about the nature of life and memory:

I am today the same person as that solemn little girl with pale flaxen sausage-curls. the house in which the spirit dwells, grows, develops instincts and tastes and emotions and intellectual capacities, but I myself, the true Agatha, am the same. I do not know the whole Agatha. The whole Agatha, so I believe, is known only to God.

So there we are, all of us, little Agatha Miller, and big Agatha Miller, and Agatha Christie and Agatha Mallowan proceeding on our way – where? That one doesn’t know – which of course makes life exciting. I have always thought life exciting and I still do. (page 11)

I’ll be writing more about Agatha Christie on Wednesday for my contribution to the Agatha Christie Blog Tour.

Borrowed Books

The mobile library came last week. I wasn’t going to borrow many, if any books, but there were some on the shelves that looked interesting and the van isn’t coming again until 21 October so I thought, why not borrow them. Then we went to our granddaughter’s 10th birthday party on Saturday and our son lent me a book too. It’s the top one in the pile shown below. Finally we went into town yesterday and as I returned a book to the library there I had a quick look round and borrowed the book at the bottom of the pile.

From top to bottom they are:

  • The Tent, the Bucket and Me: My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70s by Emma Kennedy. Apparently (I say this because I haven’t got that far in the book) they go to Carnac where we also went camping (well in a caravan) in the 80s. I checked on Amazon and this book has widely different reviews – some love it and think it very funny and others think it’s dreadful and not at all funny. I wonder which ‘camp’ I’ll be in.
  • Borrower of the Night: a Vicky Bliss Murder Mystery by Elizabeth Peters. I haven’t read anything by Elizabeth Peters, but as I’ve seen some reviews on a few blogs, I thought I’d have a look at this one. I haven’t started it yet. Vicky Bliss is an art historian, beautiful and brainy, according to the back cover. This one is about a search for a missing masterwork in wood by a master carver who died in Germany in the 16th century.
  • The Fall by Simon Mawer. I’ve read one other by by Simon Mawer – The Gospel of Judas, which I’d enjoyed. The Fall is the story of Rob and Jamie, friends from childhood, with a passion for mountaineering and climbing. From just a quick look at it, I see that it begins in Snowdon (another place where went on holiday and have camped and climbed (well D climbed, I just walked). Jamie and Rob take on greater challenges, culminating in the Eiger’s North Face. The jacket description appealed to me: ‘a story that captures nature at its most beautiful and most brutal, and which unlocks the intricacies at the heart of human relationships.’
  • A Change in Altitude by Anita Shreve. I’ve not been too keen on the latest books by Anita Shreve, although I loved her earlier ones, so I thought I’d borrow this one rather than buy it. I have started to read it, but just a few pages in it hasn’t ‘grabbed’ me yet. It’s about two couples on a climbing expedition to Mount Kenya when a horrific accident occurs.
  • Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. I read Labyrinth a few years ago (before I began this blog) and at the time I noted that it was ‘OK but too long’. So this is another book I decided not to buy, but if I saw it in the library I’d borrow it. It is enormously long! So far I’ve read a few chapters, set in 1891 in Paris and I’m not sure whether I’ll ever finish it. It’s a time-split book, divided 1891 and 2007, ‘the story of a tragic love, a missing girl, a unique set of tarot cards and the strange events of a cataclysmic night.’ (from the back cover)
  • The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd. I’ve always enjoyed Peter Ackroyd’s books and this one looked like a candidate for the RIP Challenge (as does Sepulchre). So far I’ve read about Victor Frankenstein’s love of learning and his desire to know the secrets of nature and the source of life. He has met Shelley at Oxford University, attended lessons at the dissecting room of St Thomas’s Hospital in London and is fascinated by Humphrey Davy’s experiments with electrical experiments. So far, so good. This book also has very mixed reviews on Amazon and in the press – the Guardian, ‘disappointing‘ and the Telegraph, ‘a brilliant jeu d’esprit.’

The links are to Amazon.co.uk (except for the press reviews). The only book to get consistent reviews on Amazon is The Fall. I don’t take much notice of these reviews, unless I know the reviewer, but I find it interesting to read such varying responses.