Saturday, 28 January 2012

Two For Sorrow by Nicola Upson

I was a bit disappointed with the last book in this series, so I was really hoping to enjoy this one. And I did - I thought it was great.
The heroine, Josephine Tey is back in London. She is researching a true crime novel about 'baby farmers'. These were women who would for a fee, take in unmarried pregnant women (the book is set at the beginning of the twentieth century), then when the baby was born they would pretend to get the baby adopted, but would in fact kill it. Josephine has a tenuous connection with one such case, a former teacher of hers was a prison warden in Holloway Jail when two baby farmers, Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters were executed. This former teacher, Celia Bannerman now works at the Cowdray Club, where Josephine stays when she is in London.
There is a particularly gruesome murder of an employee of Lettice and Ronnie, Josephine's good friends. This brings into the picture Archie Penrose, the policeman who Josephine has a close, but confused relationship with. The dead girl was a former prisoner at Holloway Jail, and it seems as if there might be a connection with the Cowdray Club.
There is a glamour to this book, and the first in the series which I felt was lacking in the second. The world of the theatre in which Josephine moves is exciting and Lettice and Ronnie in particular, as successful costumiers evoke the glitzy, glamourous life of the wealthy in the 1920s. This contrasts with the squalor of the crimes, and the poverty that was so close by.  I loved this book, and can't wait for the next one.

When we had the cold snap last week we went out with our cameras to try and get some good frosty pictures. My camera is just a little point and click one, so my method was to try and get as close up as possible.

 Billy borrowed his dad's camera and we walked through the churchyard down to the ecology park. The churchyard is a good place for spotting wildlife, we often see squirrels there. 

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Birthday books

It was my birthday last week and I did very well for books. From my friend Karyn I got The Wonderful Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster. It is described in the blurb as 'the original and definitive account of the Pendle witch trials of 1612'. The account written up by the clerk of the court, Thomas Potts, has been modernised by historian Robert Poole, making it easier for a 21st century reader to follow. I don't know very much about the Pendle witches at all. I used to live in Preston in Lancashire, not far from where it all took place, but am very ignorant about it.
The second book to unwrap was from my husband Mark, who bought me John Forster's biography of Charles Dickens. It is a beautiful book, lavishly illustrated, with extracts from the novels. The introduction is by Jane Smiley.

For my birthday treat we had a drive out to Saltburn. I love Saltburn, it's a old Victorian seaside town. Hemmed in by the cliffs it's too small to have expanded in the way towns such as Blackpool and Scarbrough have. It's a real gem.  We had our lunch in The Ship pub, where the smugglers used to drink centuries ago.
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Then we went to the Saltburn Bookshop, a second hand book shop that I haven't been into in years. I got a pretty good haul. I was determined to buy something by someone I'd never heard of, because I always go into a bookshop looking for title or authors that I recognise. I felt like being a bit more reckless! The book that fitted the bill was Tomorrow Will Come by E.M. Almedingen. The blurb says 'It is the story of a young girl's life in St Petersburg, from early childhood until her departure from Russia in 1922.' There is a quote from Storm Jameson (who, co-incidentally, was born in Whitby, the next town down the coast from Saltburn) who says that it is 'a remarkable book. The future will picture our age through books like this, and not through the official records. And this story has, as well as a rare clarity, charm and a spiritual and imaginative strength which is still rarer.'

I also picked up the second volume of The Fortunes of War by Olivia Manning. The first volume is on my TBR shelf waiting to be read. The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley. I was reading about Huxley at A Work in Progress recently, so this book leapt out at me when I saw it on the shelf. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes has been on my TBR list for a while. Mrs Keppel and her Daughter by Diana Souhami. The daughter was of course Violet Trefusis and I love reading about Bloomsbury and all the people connected with it. The Harsh Voice by Rebecca West. I've never read any West, but have been meaning to for some time.
On the way to the bookshop I popped into a charity shop and picked up a book containing two Miss Read stories. I loved Miss Read when I was younger and thought it might be time to revisit her.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

This novel starts with a murder. An unknown man is disposing of the body of an unknown woman.

She had been like so many Londoners, a person who did not fit in anywhere else, and who had come to the city hoping to find a new beginning. Now though, she is just one more discarded thing which will be counted as lost, if she is counted at all.

The story concerns the lives of five people struggling to live in London. Polly, a human rights lawyer trying to cope with the pressure of being a single parent to two demanding children. Kate, an American who is putting her life back together after a breakdown. Ian, a South African who is working as a teacher in a rough school. Anna, a fifteen year old girl who thought she was coming to London from Ukraine to work as a chambermaid in a big hotel, but is being forced to work as a prostitute. Job, who has fled Zimbabwe after being arrested and tortured there.

It can be very hard to live in a big city. For those with choices it can be easy to push principles to one side just to get by. Polly, despite her work as a human rights lawyer, employs a foreign au-pair at well under the minimum wage. Ian is wondering whether it is worth going into work every day to face a class who are unable to concentrate and don't want to learn, alongside colleagues who are completely demoralised. He is considering moving to teach at a private school.

For people like Anna and Job there are no choices. Anna's story is particularly disturbing. As I was reading it I was thinking, 'Right now, while I'm reading this in my safe, warm home, there are young women and girls being treated like Anna.' Job is the moral centre of the book. His visa has run out, he is in the country illegally, so he has to take work where he can find it. He is excruciatingly lonely, but he retains a kernel of optimism and never loses his sense of right and wrong. He is a good man.

All the characters are linked by the initial murder, though they don't know it. I thought the book was a real page turner, I couldn't put it down. I will look for more by Amanda Craig.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Cold and frosty day

It is very cold here today and I don't think that the frost is going to lift. I've been out this morning, doing errands, but I'm planning to stay in where it's warm for the rest of the day. Billy has a friend here to play, so  I'm hoping that they will amuse each other and leave me some reading time. They have left me a walkie talkie so they can contact me to ask for drinks and snacks if needs be!

At the moment I am reading Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope. I'm reading it for the Back To The Classics Challenge 2012. I'm not very far into it yet, but enjoying it so far. I'm also reading The English Novel by Walter Allen. I love reading about books, and in this book 'the development of the novel is followed from Pilgrim's Progress to James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.' It's a classic apparently, but I haven't read much literary criticism, so hadn't heard of it before I saw it on ReadItSwapIt. The joy of my new kindle is that when Allen praises a novel I hurry over to  Amazon, and if it's available for free I download it there and then. I've got Coningsby and Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli, Peter Simple by Frederick Marryat and Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love. Marryat and Love I've never heard of before. I've heard of Disraeli of course, and knew that he wrote novels, but have never read any of them. Now I just have to find time to read them.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

This is the first in the series of the Bryant and May detective stories. I have already written about the second, The Water Room, which I received through the Transworld Book Challenge.
The story opens with an explosion at the offices of the Peculiar Crimes Squad, the small branch of the Metropolitan Police where Arthur Bryant and John May work. It seems that Bryant has been killed in the blast. John May, his friend of sixty years, is heartbroken. His investigation of the explosion takes him back to the Second World War and the Blitz, where he first met Arthur Bryant.

Images etched themselves in John May's mind and remained there throughout his life: a bus standing on its end, a warden hugging a silent, terrified child, a bright blue hat at the edge of a blood-spilled crater. One night, audiences emerged from Faust at Sadler's Wells to find the sky on fire. If London was the centre of the world, the world was burning. It was a violent place in which to discover a purpose. It was a good place to forge a friendship.

May feels that the explanation for the crime lies with a different one, one which they investigated during the War. The murder of a dancer as she rehearsed in a theatre was their first case together. We follow this case, in flashback, alongside May's investigation in the present.

I loved this book just as much as I loved The Water Room. Christopher Fowler makes London into a mythic, mystical place and the novel is peopled with eccentrics and grotesques. At the same time it is very fixed in reality, the reality that's just slightly under the surface of the conventional one most of us inhabit.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Man in the Brown Suit by Agatha Christie

The heroine of this story is Anne Beddingfield, is a fiesty young woman in the Tuppence Beresford mould. Her father dies leaving her not very well provided for and Anne finds herself living off the kindness of
friends. This is not a situation which suits her, she is an independent spirit and as soon as she gets the first sniff of adventure she's off.

She happens to witness what seems to be an accidental death on the London Underground. Anne suspects it's something more, and believes a note she finds on the station platform,  '1 7 1 22 Kilmorden Castle' is a clue. The dead man is linked with an empty property in which a murdered woman has been found. Anne finds out that 'Kilmorden Castle' is the name of a ship which is due to sail from London to South Africa. On a whim Anne spends all her money on a one way passage on the ship in order to uncover the mystery.

I found this story very convoluted and complicated. I certainly had no idea who the villain was. It relied quite a lot on co-incidence, which is fine, but I think it added to my confusion. I have promised myself that the next time I read a Christie I'm going to make proper notes, hopefully that way I'll be able to keep it clearer in my head.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Nim's Island by Wendy Orr

Nim lives on a tropical island with her father, Jack. It's just the two of them since her mother died. He works as a marine biologist and goes off in his boat for three days to study plankton, leaving Nim all alone. She doesn't mind, she has her chores to do and her book, Mountain Madness, to read. She also has her animal friends to play with; Selkie the sea-lion, Fred the iguana and Chica the turtle. She can stay in contact with her father by cell phone. However, after a very windy night, she can't get any response from Jack's phone. Increasingly nervous, Nim keeps herself busy. Checking Jack's e-mails she replies to a request from novelist Alex Rover. A correspondence builds up between them, which helps to take Nim's mind off her father.

This is a lovely adventure story for children. I'm sure that most kids would relish the idea of having a whole island as their playground. As readers we are aware that Jack is OK, so it's not too scary for the little ones. The island is perfect, with a rainforest, a volcano (the scene of Nim's scariest adventure) and a beautiful beach. There is a modern mix of Crusoe-esque self-sufficiency, for example Nim bakes bread on the hot rocks near the volcano and new technology in the form of satellite dishes and computers.

The outside world does occasionally intrude. The Troppo Tourists come on their cruise ship, with no concern for the natural environment. Nim and Jack are presented as custodians of the natural world and the Troppo Tourists are the barbarians who want to destroy it.

This is a good read. As an adult I had to set aside my disbelief that any parent would leave their child alone on a deserted island, let alone a deserted island with an active volcano! But I'm sure it isn't a detail which would bother any child reader.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Reading in 2012

I've only signed up for one reading challenge in 2012, the Back To The Classics Challenge which is hosted by Sarahreadstoomuch. There are a lot of other great challenges around but I didn't want to commit myself to too much so that I have time to join in with the shorter challenges which pop up throughout the year.

I have set myself some goals as well. I constantly tell myself to re-read more, but somehow never get around to it. So I've picked six books from my shelves which I will make a effort to read this year.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
This was going to be my Christmas read until I decided to read A Christmas Carol with Billy. I've also got Mr Pip by Lloyd Jones on my TBR shelf which will make a good companion read.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
I love reading about Virginia Woolf but it's years since I read any of her novels. If my memory serves me correctly, this is the 'easiest' one.

Special Topic in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
I have definitely read this book, but have no recollection of it whatsoever.

This Book Will Change Your Life by A.M. Homes
I loved this novel when I read it, I remember thinking that it was really life-affirming and optimistic.

Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler
An old, old favourite that I haven't read for years and years.

The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch
I remember buying this book when I was in my late teens. I didn't (and still don't) buy new hardback books because they are too expensive, but for some reason on this occasion I did.  I remember the thrill of buying it.

I may re-read other books but I definitely will try to read these six.

I have noticed with my reading that I rarely go back to an author, (unless they've written a series) even if I really like them. There are so many new books coming out all the time that I want to read. I'm working my way through Agatha Christie's books, but that could take decades! So this year I'm going to pick an  author and try and read more of their work. And the author I've chosen is......... Hilary Mantel. It's not a challenge to try and read everything she's ever written, just to keep and eye open in the library and on ReadItSwapIt for books by her.

I hope everyone has had a lovely Christmas. Best wishes for the New Year.