The Reading of Books: Looking Back at May and June

I can’t quite believe that we’re half way through the year, but I know that we are.

The sun is shining, the town in full of tourists, and it’s almost time for bed but it’s still light outside.

It’s time to think about this years sixes.

It’s time to pick up my first book for Paris in July.

But I should look back first; and, because I was distracted at the end of last month, I have two months of books to consider.

These were some of my favourites:

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And there were other books that I loved. Enough that I’d find it easier to pull a few weaker books from that bottom of the heap found it pulling a few favourites from the top.

So I’ll do is make a few little lists.

I won’t ramble, because I’ve had two good reading months and there are rather a lot of books to go on those lists.

I’ll just say – here they are!

Two very different pieces of narrative non fiction:

Becoming Queen by Kate Williams
This House of Grief by Helen Garner

The first fiction published by one of my most beloved authors:

Scenes of Clerical Life by George Eliot

Three lovely Victorian novels:

 The Romance of a Shop by Amy Levy
Policy and Passion by Rosa Praed
The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope

Two contemporary stories of mystery and suspense that didn’t work for me:

The Sudden Departure of the Frasers by Louise Candlish
Disclaimer by Renee Knight

A not as good as her others – but by no means bad – book by a writer of traditional mysteries:

Lonesome Road by Patricia Wentworth

An excellent edition to one of my favourite contemporary crime series:

River of Souls by Kate Rhodes

Two very different books that I’d read before, and were just as good as I remembered:

Cashelmara by Susan Howatch
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Four fine novels by 20th century authors:

The Far Cry by Emma Smith
Modesta by G B Stern
The Meeting Place by Mary Hocking
Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey

Two promising first novels:

Clay by Melissa Harrison
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

One wonderful one-off:

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

Two very good contemporary novels:

Flight by Isabel Ashdown
The Red Notebook by Antoine Lauraine

And one shiny new gem:

The Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

* * * * * * * * *

Now tell me – how has your reading been? – what do you have planned?

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

A few years ago I read a novel by Helen Garner that was so vivid and so real that I had to remind myself that it wasn’t real, it was fiction. I picked this book up on the strength of her name. It’s a work of non fiction, telling the story of a tragedy and the court cases that ensued, and it is so very well written and ‘plotted’ that I could have quite easily believed that I was reading a very fine work of fiction

On a spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. It filled with water and sank to the bottom. The man who had been driving the car freed himself and swam to safety, but his three passengers — all young children — couldn’t escape and they all drowned.

22814793Was it an terrible accident, or was it a deliberate act. Did Robert Farquharson intentionally drive into the dam in to kill his three young sons, who he was returning to their mother – his former wife after a Father’s Day visit?

His wife believed him when he said that it was an accident. He said that he had suffered a coughing fit so severe that he lost control of the car. He said that her had tried to save their sons, but everything had happened so quickly and been so traumatic that his memory was gone.

She supported him when he was arrested and charged with three counts of murder. Her family and his own family stood behind him too.

Helen Garner followed the story in the news, and she was drawn to the trial, at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. ‘This House of Grief’ sets out the court proceedings, and her observations, experiences and reactions, clearly and precisely.

It’s difficult to read the story of such a terrible family tragedy; but it’s more difficult to look away. The arguments were so very finely balanced, and I would see from the start that no matter which of the arguments prevailed there would always be some points, important points, that could probably never be explained. As the court case unfolded I began to lean to one particular argument, but I knew that I didn’t know, that I couldn’t now.

The pace is stately, and there are pages of details about technicalities: the trajectory of the car, the marks on the road, the medical condition known as cough syncope …. it was mind-numbing but it was compelling, because so much hung on it.

The author’s observations were lucid and intelligent; she understood that so many lives had been touched and changed. The two men who arrived at the scene, who did their best to help, but who felt they might have handled things better; the divers who struggled too recover the car and the bodies from the depths of the dam; the woman who passed the car before it reached the damn, who had looked across and seen the passengers in that car; the jury who had so much to evaluate.

Her own thoughts and reactions, her emotional journey through the court proceedings are there too; real and vivid. I never doubted her honesty; I appreciated her intelligence and sensitivity; and I understood her desire to understand what had happened and to see justice prevail.

The writing is lovely; the story is compelling; and I turned the pages very quickly.

This true story is going to haunt me for a very long time.

Two Months in Book Shopping; or How I Tried to be Moderate but Didn’t Entirely Succeed ….

I said at the end of April that I needed to slow down my bookish acquisitions, and I succeded for a while. So much so that I didn’t issue my usual month-end update at the end of May.

I bought just five books that month.

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Three were the result of a single visit to the Oxfam Shop:

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder came home because I remembered Lisa writing very warmly about the author, and because when I opened it I was imediately smitten.

Storm Ahead by Monica Edwards was on the same shelf, it had a lovely cover, and so I picked it up to keep the other book company. I know that the author is much loved, I know my books is part of a series, and I hope that someone will be able to tell me if I can start in the middle.

The Piano on the Left Bank by T E Carhart caught my eye too, and I remembered that someone once told me that it was their favourite book set in Paris.

I went looking for two other books:

Moths by Ouida is on my Classics Club list and I’d planned to read an Open Library copy, but the quality of the scan was poor and so I went looking for a reasonably priced used copy. And I found one.

When I read The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler I knew that I would have to look for her other books, and when I spotted as signed copy of The Professor’s Children I couldn’t resist.

I was pleased with that month: I cherry-picked the books I saw on my travels and I bought home only the ones that I really, really wanted.

I backslid a little in May, partly because I still had my birthday book tokens and I decided to spend them before I forgot them. That was sensible, but I forgot to put my decisive head on and I spent rather more than I intended.

 

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The British Library Crime Classics were heavily discounted, and so I picked four to join to the three I already own. I didn’t mean to start another collection, but I think I might have.

I read The Plantagents by Dan Jones on holiday, I wanted to follow that up with The Hollow Crown, so that one came home.

The book that I shouldn’t have picked up was Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge. I already have the book in a Virago edition but I picked up that Daunt Books edition and I should have put it down again. But I didn’t.

That was a lapse, but I have been reasonably restrained.

I bought just three books online.

 

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I’ve been waiting for Honno to reprint Betsy Cadwaladyr: A Balaclava Nurse and I a delighted that I have a copy now.

“Elizabeth Davis – known in Wales as Betsy Cadwaladyr – was a ladies’ maid from Meirionnydd who travelled the world and gained fame as a nurse during the Crimean War. She was a dynamic character who broke free of the restrictions placed on women in Victorian times to lead a life of adventure. Journeying to many exotic parts of the globe, she came into contact with international events in the horrors of the field hospital at Balaclava, where she served under Florence Nightingale.”

Leadon Hill by Richmal Crompton has been on my list for a while and I noticed that it had fallen off the Greyladies list of books in print, so I looked to find a reasonably priced copy and when I did I snapped it up.

I was intrigued by The Shelf by Phyllis Rose when I read about the book and the project behind it.

“Can you have an Extreme Adventure in a library? Phyllis Rose casts herself into the wilds of an Upper East Side lending library in an effort to do just that. Hoping to explore the real ground of literature, she reads her way through a somewhat randomly chosen shelf of fiction.”

When Simon enthused about the book I checked the library  catalogue, and when I didn’t find the book I ordered a copy.

And that was very nearly it for the month.

I went to the Morrab Library summer fete this morning and I came away with three books.

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Dark Quartet by Lynne Reid Banks – her novelisation of the Bronte story – is another book I remember being recommended.

I was delighted to find another book by Francis Brett Young I don’t have: The House Under Water looks very, very good.

And I looked at a whole line of books by Howard Spring and I couldn’t remember which ones I had. I picked out the ones that were nice editions, I looked at them closely, and the only one that I didn’t recognise was Winds of the Day. Sadly when I got home I discovered that I did have a copy, but the one I bought today is a much better copy.

I won’t be going anywhere else where there are books for sale before the end of the month.

And I think I’m beginning to get the hang of this ‘only buying books to build my personal library’ thing; and the ‘only buying books I really want to read’ thing.

Now, tell me how are you doing with book buying?

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

This is a veritable chocolate box of a novel.

It’s it looks gorgeous, it’s full of lots of different lovely things, it’s almost too much, but its completely irresistible.

I thought for the first time in years – of a particular box of chocolates that my father bought for my mother when I was a very small girl. I remember that it was large, it was casket shaped, and it was covered with pictures of ladies in long dresses. I was smitten with that box, and my mother gave it to me in the end, to use as a jewellery box. I kept that box for years and years, even after one of my aunts gave me a proper, grown-up jewellery box as an eighteenth birthday present ….

9781408862445I looked for an image, but I couldn’t find anything remotely like it.

It’s strange and lovely that a book can pull out a memory like that.

‘The Improbability of Love’ could do that because its so vivid and because it was so clearly written with love and about things the author loved.

Now, back to the story

‘The Improbability of Love’ is a lost masterpiece; a painting by Antoine Watteau, the celebrated 18th century French artist. It had a fabulous provenance, it had been owned by the great and the good, but it had been lost and somehow it found its way into a London junk shop.

That was how it came to be owned by Annie McDee, a young cook who was nursing a broken heart.  She liked it, she was interested to find out a little more about it, but she had no idea just how special her painting was or just what an extraordinary story was about to unfold.

Actually, it’s not just one story, it’s a wonderful melange of stories:

  • A bittersweet romance, and a touching story of a mother and a daughter.
  • A sharp satire of the London art scene; the decadence and the desperation.
  • The story of one family’s entanglement with art theft on Nazi Germany.
  • History that the painting lived through.
  • Luscious gastro-porn.
  • Quests for the painting; an art-world mystery-thriller.

It’s a cornucopia of delights;  underpinned by a lovely depth of knowledge of art, history and the art world. I was wonderfully entertained and I learned a lot along the way.

The writing is smooth and natural, and it swings through a lovely, diverse range points of view and voices, including ‘The Improbability of Love’ himself.

The painting spoke fondly of his creator, proudly of his glorious history, and with concern about its present situation and its fears of what his fate might be. It was a wonderful creation, and I could have spent many happy hours listening to him. I even wondered how he might get on with the armchair who told her own story in Memoirs of an Armchair ….

I was so impressed with the richest and depth that Hannah Rothschild gave to the life and history of this particular artwork, and I had to remind myself from time to time that ‘The Improbability of Love’ was fictional.

The whole cast of characters was very  well drawn, and  I felt so many different emotions as I reacted to different characters and different elements of the story in so many different ways.

It isn’t subtle and it isn’t a book to analyse; it’s a fabulous entertainment and it’s terribly easy to keep turning the pages.

If anything there’s a little too much going on. There were lots of things I’d like to have had a little more of, but there wasn’t much I’d be willing to lose to make more space.

Towards the end things get a little rushed and a little silly, but the grand denouement was exactly right and the ‘what happened next’ was the perfect way to bring this story – a real one-off – to its final conclusion.

The Continuing Story of a Knitting Resolution

I made a knitting resolution last year– to use up odd balls of yarn that had been hanging around the house for far too long – and I passed my target of knitting up half of the dozen little bags of yarn I photographed.

There was no resolution this year, because at the start of the year I was re-working the Man of the House’s Aran. I’d not taken account of the depth of the armholes and the sleeves were much too long. I was ready to knit something else but after putting so much work in I had to put in a little more and have it exactly right.

And I wanted to mix things up a bit more this year, to get back to knitting garment again and slowly a plan began to merge. It involves:

  • Wardrobe building.
  • Things I haven’t done before.
  • Continuing to use yarn that’s already in the house.

Not so much a resolution as a new design for a knitting life.

I had a break from knitting when the Aran was finally finished – but I’ve picked up my needles again – and I have a sweater nearly finished and a hat to show you today.

The Yarn.

I had a single skein of Merlin Aran for Eden Cottage Yarns.

The yarn is lovely. It has exactly the right balance of substance and strength, it’s developed a lovely halo now it’s knitted up,. The shade – India – is perfectly poised between red and pink, and it has just enough variation to give it depth without becoming variegated.

It was irresistible and it spoke to me – it said ‘HAT!’

The Pattern

I’d had my eye on Queenie by Woolly Wormhead for quite some time.

It’s a child’s pattern, but I loved the shape, and if you look through the projects on Ravelry you’ll see that several people have scaled it up to make an adult hat.

I was sure that I could do the same. And I did!

The Result.

It’s a lovely hat.

It fits perfectly – me and the dog!

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I love it – but there’s one big problem. It doesn’t suit me at all.

I should have known – I’ve learned over the years that it’s not enough to simply love the yarn and the pattern – I know that I have to cherry-pick the things I love to find the ones that I will love to knit, that will suit me, and that I will have occasion to wear.

I was distracted by a lovely yarn and a striking pattern.

Lesson learned!

(The hat will either be a gift or a donation to an autumn bazaar.)

Next Up

The sweater that I mentioned. This one – but in quite different colours.

Then I have another one in mind. And another hat ….

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

I realise that I may be the last person in the world to read ‘Burial Rites’, Hannah Kent’s much lauded debut novel.

It caught my eye a long time ago, when it was newly published, I acquired a copy, but when it arrived it didn’t call me. I think that maybe I read a little too much about it, maybe I felt that what I read and the knowledge that it was based on real, historical events said to me that there was less reason to read this book that there were to read other books.

I picked it up a little while ago, because it had been waiting for long enough, and it was time for me to either read it or let it go.

When I started to read I discovered that, though the story played out much as I thought it would, though there were no real surprises, the telling of the story was so very good that I had to keep reading.

The facts underpinning this book are simple and stark:

‘Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.’

The story opens in  1829, a year after Agnes –and two others– had been found guilty of the two murders. Agnes was sent north, into the custody of District Officer Jón Jónsson, to work on his farm until the time came for her execution.  where she will await the day of her beheading. District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust, but as they had no choice in the matter and they had to find ways to cope.

17333319Allowed visits from a spiritual advisor , to prepare her for what lay ahead, and Agnes asked for the Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson. He had no idea why he had been chosen. He was young and inexperienced, and he knew that he was  ill-equipped for the role he was called upon to play.

In time Agnes proves herself to be a good worker on the farm, and quiet and obedient in the house. The family relax, just a little, and Agnes realises and appreciates that. She begins to wonder if a reprieve as possible; and she slowly begins to talk about her past, and about the events that led up to the night of the murders.

The story is so well told. The prose is cool, clear and compelling; perfectly matched to the story.

The setting: 19th  century Iceland, its landscape, its climate,  its small rural communities are as caught perfectly. The isolation of the farms and the claustrophobia that comes when many people must share a small farmhouse are particularly striking. And the atmosphere is exactly right.

The narrative moved from the third person (for the District Officer’s family and the Reverend) and first person (for Agnes) quite naturally, and very effectively. It offered insights into all of the characters thoughts, and it placed events on that terrible, fateful night, as they were lived through by the person charged with the crime, at the centre of the story.

What happened was inevitable, Agnes had realised that, but she realised it far too late. She knew that:

‘All my life people have thought I was too clever.  Too clever by half, they’d say.  And you know what Reverend?  That’s exactly why they don’t pity me.  Because they think I’m too smart, too knowing to get caught up in this by accident.’

Agnes’s story was harrowing, but it was utterly believable. At times it was difficult to read, already know how her story would end, but she had become real to me and so I had to keep turning the pages.

I can understand why ‘Burial Rites’  has been so lauded. The story is compelling and thought-provoking; the writing is rich and atmospheric; and it’s hard to imagine that a better story could have been spun around the known facts.

My only disappointment was the inevitability of it all. Of course the ending was inevitable, but  I couldn’t help feeling that one thing that stood against that, one thing that suggested things really could be different, might have – for me –  been the spark that would transform this book from ‘very good’ to ‘great’, from ‘memorable’ to ‘unforgettable’.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t find that spark.

In the end I found much to admire  but I found little to love; and now I’m not sorry that I can let go of what is ultimately a dark story with an unhappy ending.

The Vicar of Bullhampton by Anthony Trollope

I picked up ‘The Vicar of Bullhampton’ because I was looking for a Trollope that didn’t centre around a will or a court case. I should have read the synopsis a little more carefully because there is a court case – one concerned with crime this time, not inheritance – but I didn’t mind too much, because I found much to enjoy in the three entangling stories involving said vicar.

This isn’t my favourite Trollope – and it’s very nearly a curate’s egg – but I did find a great deal to enjoy.

I was very taken with the vicar – Frank Fenwick – who was a good and compassionate man, with a stubborn streak that stopped him being too perfect. I was equally taken with his wife, Janet, and I loved the relationship between the two of them. They had a real, believable genuinely happy marriage.

The first story is a classic Trollope love triangle, concerning the possible marriage of Mary Lowther, a childhood friend of the vicar’s wife. The Fenwicks promoted a match with Harry Gilmore, a Bullhampton squire and an old friend of the vicar. He fell in love with her; Mary recognised that he was a good man, but knew that she did not him as a wife should love her husband. When Gilore proposed, she does not reject him outright, but she asked for time to consider. Because she knew that he was a good match, and that maybe she would never find her true love. Mary did find true love, with her second cousin, Captain Walter Marrable. But their circumstances meant that they were not in a position to marry, and that they maybe never would be.

My feelings about Mary changed over the course of the story. I worried at first that she would be another Alice Vavasor; when I realised that she wasn’t I came to like her and feel a great deal of sympathy and empathy; sadly that didn’t last. I’m afraid that Mary – as is often the way with people in love – became oblivious to the feelings of others. And it didn’t help that her family story was a little too broad and the development of her true love a little difficult to believe.

490912It wasn’t that it was bad, but I know that Trollope can do much, much better, and I enjoyed the other strands of the story more.

The second story is of the family of Bullhampton’s miller, Jacob Brattle. His youngest son, Sam, had been a hard worker at the mill, but when he fell in with bad company his standards slipped and he was absent far too often. When a Bullhampton farmer was murdered in the course of a burglary suspicion fell of Sam’s associates, and it was known that he had been with them. The vicar had known Sam since he was a young boy, he believed him when he said that he was innocent, and he did his best to help.

He also tried to reconcile the miller with his daughter Carry. She had been seduced by a soldier, she had been thrown out by her appalled father, and since then she had been living as a ‘fallen woman’. This being a Victorian novel Trollope did not address the question of how she survived as a woman alone, but his meaning was clear. Her situation was complicated by her involvement with one of her brother’s associates; but that might also be the key to saving her brother and reuniting her with her father ….

I loved the twists and turns of this story, and I loved the very real emotions and reactions of different family members. But what made this book exceptional was the portrayal of the ‘fallen woman’. She wasn’t repentant and striving to be virtuous, she wasn’t defiant and falling further, she was simply a young woman struggling to come to terms with the consequences of what had happened and the harsh realities of this situation.

This is what I love about Trollope. He’s utterly conventional, writing about the natural roles for women being marriage and motherhood, but on the other hand he clearly hoped for a society that had understanding and compassion for those who struggled to reach those goals.

This books illuminates those different sides of Trollope better than any of the others I have read.

I couldn’t completely believe the way the story of the Brattle family played out, but it felt right – emotionally and psychologically – and I wanted to believe it.

The third story concerned the Marquis of Trowbridge, Bullhampton’s principal landowner. He was so appalled when the vicar took up Sam and Carry Brattle’s causes, that he gives the Methodist minister, Mr Puddleham, a plot of land on which to build a new chapel – a plot of land right opposite the vicarage gates. The Fenwicks were aghast as a red brick edifice grew higher and higher, but they had no idea what they could do about it. Until Mrs. Fenwick’s brother-in-law, a brilliant London barrister, looked into things ….

This story balanced the others beautifully, with a well judged mixture of drama and comedy.

Indeed the balance was what struck me about the whole book: three stories different in tone and content, considering many aspects of the human condition, considering many sides of society, And yet they sat quite naturally together, speaking, profoundly and movingly, about forgiveness, about acceptance, and about reconciliation.

I found much to love. Wonderful, real, believable human characters and relationships; lovely letters, reported by an author telling the tale in his own inimitable style; and a large village – or maybe a small town – in the Wiltshire countryside.

And in the end the strength of the whole allowed me to let go of the weaknesses of some of the parts.

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