Sunday, 31 March 2019

Ten Books I Haven't Read............Yet

Okay, so I was supposed to be somewhere else and doing something else today but I've just been blown out so I'll console myself with a blog post! This is a revamp of another '10' list I did for Nudge/NewBooks about TBRs and books you'd acquired but not read. I've edited the original list because I have subsequently read several of the books on there. So I've added others to make it the full 10. No short measures on this blog!!!

Ten Books and Why I Acquired Them

This list is compiled In the spirit of Paul and Jade’s* lists of ten books but with a slightly different slant. As a reviewer I prioritise review copies to the extent that I find my personal TBR shelves fuller and fuller with books I want to read but can’t find the time to do so!  I thought it might be fun to pluck ten books from those shelves that I want to read and detail the provenance and motivation for that desire. 

*Reference to other Nudge compilers.


 Paris - Edward Rutherfurd

My Mum loved Rutherfurd’s books. She read them all. She was a silver surfer who was signed up to his mailing list and for a while truly believed that he was emailing her personally to tell her when publication was imminent. She had received an email advising of New York’s publication and was excited about reading it. Sadly she died before that happened. So I bought a copy and read it for her and in her memory. it is my intention to continue to read his books for her. Paris is the next one on my list. My Mum read to me every single night the moment I was old enough to listen and I’ll never forget the books we shared together. 


 Shantaram - Gregory David Roberts

I received a hardback copy of The Mountain Shadow to review and I had to sign an affidavit that I would not disclose anything prior to publication! I enjoyed the book in all its glorious and wordy paradoxes. The person from the review body who facilitated my copy was an enthusiastic Roberts fan and cited Shantaram as one of her favourite books. I promised to read it and duly acquired a copy. I will keep that promise but I cannot say when. 


we were liars - e. lockhart
I recently reviewed a copy of genuine fraud and loved the irony of the title. For if the writer had not acknowledged the immense debt to Patricia Highsmith at the end of the book I might have written a scathing review implying plagiarism of the Talented Mr. Ripley! I am so curious to read this earlier books of hers - just to see! So when I saw this in a charity shop I snaffled it up.


The Spencer Family - Charles Spencer

 A good friend persuaded me to accompany her on a recent trip to Althorp. I knew nothing about the place except as the home and supposed last resting place of Princess Diana. I was pleasantly surprised at the rich and long history of the house. I was also surprised at how prolific a writer Charles Spencer is. So, as I exited through the gift shop, I bought myself a copy of this book together with one of those leather bookmarks you used to get in all the gift shops but are quite rare nowadays. I have loads of them, it’s where books and history fuse for me!


The Farrers of Budge Row - Harriet Martineau 

Budge Row was a street in London. It ran almost parallel with Cannon Street and was a kind of extension of Watling Street. I’ve studied the history of it as much as I can. Richard III traveled down the street one time!  Why the interest? My Mum lived there as a child at number 26 until it took a direct hit in the Blitz. The street no longer exists in name but the recent Bloomberg Development has acknowledged its existence with Watling Street and created a walkway through the complex that follows the original path. The completed development has recently opened and I can’t wait to visit. My cousin found out about this book and I managed to track down a copy. It’s a reproduction of an original copy which was located in the library at Harvard. It’s fictional but as you might expect from Martineau there’s much social theory and some politics. 

Ed. note: The development is complete but the site of Budge row, although not named, is honoured by the walkway. I've been there a couple of times with family to revisit parents' childhoods. The experience was palpable.


The Mystery of Edwin Drood - Charles Dickens

I think Dickens was my first taste of the ‘classics’. I was a kid and I watched David Lean’s Great Expectations on TV. Abel Magwitch scared the crap out of me and I found the only way to deal with that was to read the book. I must have been ten or eleven and my teacher at the time made some kind of comment which made me feel both praised and chastised at the same time! But it began a life long love affair with Dickens. However I’ve yet to read this final novel.


Melmoth - Sarah Perry

Desperate to read this after reading The Essex Serpent. I read an amazing review of it which made me want to read it all the more. In fact I think I may even sweep aside current review proofs, throw cautions to the wind with all the deadlines  and just immerse myself in this gothic tome.


The Poison Bed - Elizabeth Fremantle

I love Elizabeth Fremantle's books. I remember receiving her first book as a proof and I was bowled over by the quality of the writing and her approach to the subject. She's one of those writers who I have blind faith in and I'll read all her books unconditionally. 


My Life in France - Julia Childs

I watched the film Julie and Julia. I loved it. Meryl Streep is one of my favourite actresses. So this book is a mystery because I’m not sure if I'm gong to enjoy it. Irrationally I’m expecting Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and I know I’m not going to get them! I’m going to get Julia Childs. So I’m intrigued to start reading it.


The Queen’s Necklace - Frances Mossiker

I'm a history nerd. Not just English history either.  Marie Antoinette is one of my heroines. A political pawn and a victim of bad PR. It wasn’t called trolling in her day but that’s what she suffered. And so much of what was said about her was believed. ‘Let them eat cake (brioche)’ was attributed to her but the phrase first appeared in print when she was but six years old. This book is about an incident during her reign that suggested she was involved in a crime to defraud the crown jewellers of a diamond necklace. However it seems likely the the queen was innocent of the convoluted plot and the victim of ‘offline’ fraud and identity theft!  I’ll be interested to see what this writer’s take on the affair is. 

Again I think it'll be  interesting to revisit this post in another year's time and see how many I've managed to read!!

Friday, 29 March 2019

10 Books I'd Like to Reread

Another 'ten' list that looked at books I have and would like to reread. This list would change slightly now as it's a while since I compiled it and I've read a helluva lot more books since!! Not drastically though - I'd include Elizabeth Lowry's Dark Water instead of Cloud Atlas and it would be nearer the top. I might also include her first novel The Bellini Madonna but my heart won't let me remove any of the others. The 'following on' refers to the original 'ten' list I did for Nudge was 'Ten Books and Why I Acquired Them'. That's changed now as I've read several titles on the list. So I may revisit it and revise.


Following on from selecting the books from my TBR shelves I looked around at all my other shelves and the books there. When I was younger I had this fluffy little picture of myself retired and rereading all the books I’d grown to love over the years. That was before the internet, book blogging and reviewing became part of my daily life!! So this is a kind of Desert Island Books - ten books I’d love to reread before I die.


 On the Road - Jack Kerouac

At one point during my misspent youth this book was recommended to me as part of a hippy, hip reading list trilogy from someone I had romantic inclinations towards. (The other two books were Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). Nothing came of the romance! But much came of my reading of this book. It remains the most read book in my library. I revel in its exuberance and zest for life. And the almost pulsating, syncopated beat that carries it along like some of the jazz and be-bop it describes. I celebrate the writing method, spontaneous prose, often emulated but nothing comes close. I think it’s the best example of a roman de clef novel I know. A few years back I even traveled to Lowell, Massachusetts where Jack was born. I stood at his grave, like Dylan and Ginsberg in the film Renaldo and Clara mourning the passing of such a unique talent. Jack’s original typescript was on display at the British Library a few years ago and it brought tears to my eyes to see IT! To behold the actual manuscript that Jack worked on. I learned to love Jack’s America, very different from today’s America, but the book conjures such a sense of freedom and liberty. I have requested some of the last paragraph of the book to be read at my funeral because it seems to contain all of life, from childhood, ‘don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear’ to ‘ nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old’. And as I have grown old along with the book its insights and contradictions seem to grow too. But it’s about friendships and love and hope and disappointment, about living life to the full, about personal freedom. And of course it defined the Beat Generation. I would like to read it at least one more time before I die. 


The Trial - Franz Kafka

 Prior to ‘discovering’ Kerouac I was obsessed with Franz Kafka. Something to do with being a student starving in a garrett I think!  But I became absorbed in the dream narrative and the almost absurdity of the situations described. I also soaked up letters and diaries and biographies. I even bought a volume in German because it hadn't been translated for the English market. I’d love to reread all his novels and short stories but I think it would be The Trial I begin with because it seems to have some contemporary relevance that was not so apparent when I read it all those years ago. But having said that maybe Metamorphosis, or perhaps The Castle, I love that book..... or even...............eeek.


The Heart is a Lonely Hunter - Carson McCullers

I was a teenager staying with two maiden aunts. It was a rainy day and we were staying indoors. I had read all the books I’d brought with me and whilst there was no shortage of books in the house to a teenager they were old-fashioned turgid tomes. (Actually they weren’t really! But, hey I was just a kid!) Standing out on the shelf was the distinctive orange spine of a Penguin novel. I pounced on it and became mesmerised by the story of John Singer the deaf mute and all the people he collected around him who believed he had everything they lacked whereas he believed he had nothing to live for without love. I later found out that this was not my aunts’ book but  my cousin’s copy and she left it there after her stay with my aunts. Generously she let me keep the book. I’ve read it many times but I’d like to read it again. I’ve read all of McCullers work subsequently but this remains the most potent, and my favourite.


 City of Circles - Jess Richards

Unusually this is the only contemporary book in my list. In this context contemporary means a book I’ve read this year! I still don’t know what it is about this book that so captivated me but it had me in its thrall from the first few pages and I’m dying to read it again. I enjoyed it on more than one level. The story of Danu leaving the circus was an absorbing one. I found the writing exceptional, I just loved the flow of the words and the descriptions. I also enjoyed the ideas encapsulated in  the novel. I found it a very sensory experience and I am still not sure whether it is actually a good or a bad book!! I just know that I loved it, every word, every comma, every full stop!!


 Rebecca - Daphne DuMaurier

I’m not even sure if this is my favourite DuMaurier book. But my parents had the hardback when I was a child so my awareness of it was a subconscious one.  It was a hard choice to make because ideally I’d like to re-read the lot but I guess Rebecca is representative of her entire oeuvre. I think it was the first book, for me, where the titular main character never appeared which at the time of reading I found unique. The characterisations were great. Mrs. Danvers is surely a classic literary character now? Some books are defined by their opening sentences….. ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’.


Great Expectations- Charles Dickens

Briefly,  saw the David Lean film, l loved it, Magwitch scared me to death so I read the book. There's a logic there somewhere but damned if I can find it, That started a love affair with Dickens but this one will always be my favourite. Typical Dickens in so many respects. A rags to riches story with some iconic characters. I was still at Junior School when I read it, I remember and the teacher made some comment which was both complimentary and critical at the same time! This is an irrelevant aside but many years after the film I met the actor who played Joe Gargery! He was a client of my father’s, Sir Bernard Miles, lovely man. He was playing Falstafff in Henry IV part 1 and I met him in full padded costume!! Wot larks.


 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell

I have read this more than once and in different ways!! I read it conventionally from page 1. I read all six stories individually, first in the chronological order of the book i.e. starting with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing and a further time beginning with An Orison of Somni and going backwards!  Why? Because I could!! So I’d like to read it again just to see…….. Interestingly, and this is an added bit, I was reminded of the sections about Adam Ewing when I read the sections abroad the SS Orbis in Dark Water.


 The Hunger Games Trilogy - Suzanne Collins

Okay so this is technically three books but I’m letting myself off as it is also technically a trilogy which is singular! And as trilogy’s go it is a singular one! I love Katniss Everdene and I wish I could be her!! I love the feist and the compassion and the spontaneity. A  paradox heroine if ever there was one. Another dystopian world where good fights evil. Lots of action, lots to think about.


Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

I love Ishiguro. I love his diversity. I love his intellect. I love the intelligence he brings to his writing. But this is the one that gets me, haunts me. Maybe its because of the dystopian theme, maybe it’s because of the complexity within the simplicity, or maybe its the innocence and naiveté  of those children at the beginning but it’s a book I can’t ever let go.


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I went though an intense science fiction phase when I was but a mere slip of a girl!! I devoured Asimov amongst others but it was the apocalyptic, futuristic, dystopian world of Philip K Dick that I especially loved. Hard to select a favourite to re read but I’ve settled on this one probably because of Blade Runner and the recent sequel film being in my consciousness. But I love it that the book is set in’ 1992 A.D.’ !There’s some kind of parallel in my head of Orwell’s 1984.

I'm curious to see if, in a years time, I will have reread any or wanted to change the list at all. 

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Childhood Books

I've been rummaging round my hard drive again and I came across some of these old ’Ten’ lists I did for Nudge/New Books. They were fun. I enjoyed doing them. So I think I’d like to blog them. This one is ten books from my childhood. Just ten? There were probably ten times that!! 

1. The Teddy Robinson books by Joan G. Robinson.
I must have been about 4 but I couldn’t yet read for myself because I remember choosing these from the library and my mother reading them to me but only at bedtime. I loved the stories and felt extreme frustration that I couldn’t read them for myself any time I wanted. At that age I simply didn’t understand the demands of motherhood and thought my mum rather selfish for not dropping everything to read them to me on demand!!


2. The Adventures of Fudge - Ken Reid
My mum bought this at a bring and buy sale and it became bedtime reading for some weeks. It was another before-I-could-read-for-myself-book and I loved it. It was of its time and contained black and white line drawings of Fudge and his companions interspersed amongst the text. It was worth going to bed for.


3. The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton
I know it’s not PC to revere Blyton these days but oh, how I loved this book. It was another that my Mum read to me at night and I think I felt sick with excitement sometimes at the thought of what was going to happen next. I wanted pop biscuits and google buns like other kids wanted new bicycles. I blame my tendency towards insomnia on this book. After my mum stopped reading at another cliff hanger I just couldn’t get to sleep for wondering what happened next. It was the first book that really made me want to read for myself and I think it was the first book I read completely through for myself once I had mastered the tangled and confused lives of Janet and John. I suppose at this point I should thank my infant school teacher, Miss Pearson, for teaching me to read.


4. Pinnochio - Carlo Collodi
 My very first cinema experience was Disney’s  Robin Hood and Lady and the Tramp  but I had to be taken out before the programme finished as I was wailing at the top pf my voice. I was too young. But the animations stayed with me. Old enough now to behave quietly when my Mum took us to see the Disney version of Pinnochio which captivated me. What I was seeing was breathtakingly wonderful. And in a desire to sustain that wonderment I was bought a copy of the book which I read again and again and again. As soon as I finished it I just went back to the beginning. And while I read I saw the film in my head.


5. Twilight and Fireside - Elizabeth Clark
I was about six or seven and I caught scarlet fever from I know not where. But I was confined to my bedroom for about six weeks. It was a lonely, miserable time. But relatives sent me gifts to help me occupy those hours in bed. My great aunt sent me this book and I loved it. It contained stories for all seasons, magical tales, folk tales, ordinary people tales. I lost myself in it and it did help the time to pass.


6. What Katy Did - Susan Coolidge
A school friend gifted this to me one birthday. It was primary school so I was under eleven. I read it and loved it. It’s significant to me because I believe it to be the first book where I become aware that someone had written it. I think previously I had believed that books just were and that was that. But with this book I became aware primarily of descriptions and details not just physical but of characters too. 


7. The Game That Really Happened - Norman Dale
There was an imprint of Hamish Hamilton called Antelope Books who published purely for children. Raymond Briggs had an early title published by them.  I borrowed this from the library one Saturday morning and by bedtime my plan was complete. It was about a group of children who have meeting places in the park that they gave special names too - Rainbow, Nowhere Special, Dragon’s Lair and so on. The game grew and more places were given names. The game turned real when a gang called the Rowdies entered the frame. On Monday at school I walked around all the places I had assigned names to from the book. And my delight was replete when another kid asked me what I was doing and understood right away because they had read the book too!! So there were many playtimes when we played The Game that Really Happened!!


8. Heidi - Joanna Spyri
In time Switzerland would be the first foreign country I ever visited and I was taken there by the givers of this book! My father was one of six children so my siblings and I had plenty of doting aunts and uncles. Two of my aunts were infatuated with Switzerland and visited at east once a year. They gave me this book as an expression of the love they held for the place. And I guess a book given with love is received and read with love and I adored this story. My poor, balding, less than robust grandfather was unfairly compared to Heidi’s. Sorry grandpa.


9. Emil and the Detectives - Erich Kastner
This was read to me at school by my teacher. I knew there was something ‘weird’ about it but I had no idea what. I enjoyed it and I eventually bought a paperback copy for myself to try and find out what I found strange. I think it was the first book that I discovered was a translation and I concluded that it was the translation that rendered the book different from anything I had read before. There were several films made and my mum took me to see the 1964 Disney interpretation. My first 'it's not as good as the book' experience I think. 


10. The Young Warrenders - Ivy L Wallace

By this time I was at secondary school and a bookish friend lent this to me. I loved it and subsequently sought the other in the series. I think there were only three or four ever written. They seemed at the time to be a natural progression from the Famous Five (oops Blyton again) . Basically the series featured another group of unusually astute children who solved mysteries that eluded the capabilities of the local constabulary. The Warrenders were two sets of identical twins which I think was part of the appeal. My poor parents - I blamed them for not allowing me to have a twin. So books with twins in were appealing. It’s probably because I’m Gemini.

I feel quite moved when I think about these books. They mean so much to me (and all of those that aren't included!). They shaped me into the reader that I am now and because of them I love books. 

Monday, 25 March 2019

The Night Tiger - Yangtze Choo

The opening pages of this exquisitely balanced novel demands the reader pose a barrage of questions; my mind was spinning in spirals as I sought to extract the subtle meanings from the first few pages. It’s a book of numbers, two’s and dualities, the forty nine days of the soul and the five Confucian Virtues. It’s a book of Eastern mysticism and superstition which pervade the story like the aroma of sweet incense. A hefty serving of Chinese tradition, social history and the culture of an era serve as an accompaniment to the cast of characters, as this quest, this coming of age, this love tale ensnares you into its web of words and wonder. 

Chinese people have an aversion to suddenly waking people from sleep, in case the soul separates from the body.’

And sleeping and dreaming are fundamental to the story. It’s beautifully written and at times you have take a step back from the engrossing fiction in order to appreciate the prose style. Metaphors abound; the sustained image of the train and the station and all that it represents is a potent and stirring trope. The use of the dream narrative as leitmotiv too alerting the reader to the spiritual passages in the book. And the tiger! Always the tiger.

It’s a dual narrative, with Ji LIn’s first person hinting at a domination of proceedings from her point of view but that actually never really happens for the rest of the narrative told mainly from the endearing Ren’s perspective is beautifully balanced. The characters that matter are skilfully drawn and we believe in them, we care deeply about them, especially Ren who presents as such a pure being he grabs your heart and won't let it go. The unnamed stepfather is a masterstroke as the unnaming makes it clear he’s a bit player. 

We are encouraged, as is Ji Lin, to follow the wrong path in our suspicions and allegiances. The potentially gruesome severed finger is never as gruesome as it should be! Or is that just me?! It morphs into another kind of symbol, a reverse Holy Grail if you will! And shapeshifting is subtly implicit. The cover blurb implies that Ji Lin and Ren’s path will cross and it is pure fictional delight for the reader to experience the progress and how the writer engineers that eventual meeting. 

This is high quality story telling, richly structured with sub plots of sibling rivalry and love and a belief in something beyond this earthly plane. And although everything is tied up very neatly and conveniently at the end you find yourself wanting to know what happens next? What happens to Ren and Ji Lin and Shin? There is an understated optimism though.

There’s nothing not to like about this book. It’s a something for everyone book, history, spiritualism, love, mystery and intrigue. And it leaves you feeling somehow satisfied in a way that not all books do.

I was privileged to participate in a month long ‘buddy read’ on social media with the various exceptional personnel from Quercus Books, some fellow bookish folk and the novel’s charming author, Yangtze Choo, herself .  She offered many insights into the writing of this book and some background to some of the themes and images contained within the book which serves only to endear it to me even more. My thanks to Quercus Books for an advance proof of this delightful tale. 

Saturday, 23 March 2019

The Conviction of Cora Burns - Carolyn Kirby

As I began to read this I thought it would be another variation on so much I’ve read before. A debut novelist paying homage to Sarah Waters and other histfic luminaries? In so doing I have really justified my subscription to Arrogant Bloggers and Know-it-all This intricate tale is up there with the best of them and oh, how it grips you.

There’s no shortage of historical fiction out there. No shortage of good historical fiction out there. And no shortage of good historical fiction told from womens’ perspectives out there. Can another book cover any new ground? Yes it can. That’s what Carolyn Kirby has done. 

Firstly the title. Clever. Camouflage. Coaxes the reader to follow willingly a certain train of thought and then by the end of the book you realise it is potentially something else. Maria Hummel did that with Still Lives and it is a delight to those of us who revel in the art of the wordsmith.

There’s some common enough events depicted here, poverty, prisons, asylums and workhouses in Victorian England and a ‘big house’ with the ubiquitous fusion of colourful and drab staff but Kirby weaves an authentic tale of a Birmingham bairn damaged yet feisty with enough of a finger on the human condition to survive it all. Unscathed? You read it. 

The research is impeccable. Every last detail reads as authentic and believable. So the reader is able to carry a vivid picture of the various locations very clearly in their heads. This is invaluable due to the complexities of the plot. But it’s not merely sociological research that impresses here it is a researched knowledge of scientific and medical ideas of the time concerning insanity, trauma and, a subject that fascinates me and is so fundamental to the dynamic of this novel,  the ideas of nature and nurture. Issues regarding poverty and the place of women are interwoven too within the luxuriant brocade of the prose. I quote below from one of the characters, Dr. Farley, looking to innovate with his treatments. 

‘insanity, I explained, may express itself in many bizarre modes of behaviour -  peculiar delusions, religious mania, an obsession with cleanliness, self starvation -  but at the root of all symptoms lies the despair of inequality.’

Characters are believable and strongly drawn. Cora carries us along with her confiding in the reader her confusions and her doubts but assuring us of her tenacity. Gothic characters, men mostly, pace the corridors and laboratories of asylums and prisons offering insights as to how mental health was perceived and treated and the sense that the cusp of a breakthrough might be imminent. Much as Elizabeth Lowry did in Dark Water where treatments of conditions readily treatable today were not identified and recognised yet there were practitioners with compassion and a desire to innovate. 

The plot is complex yet accessible. The reader along with Cora experiences the dawning of the truth. slowly yet surely throughout the duration of the novel and you are almost left gasping. Some aspects are chilling to read and the implications unleash a barrage of related connotations. (Josef Mengele was conjured briefly even for me.And, no, I don’t do spoilers). 

The narrative has variety, there’s the dual narrative technique with the then and now format. There are research journal entries and scientific publication entries strategically placed which are all deliciously authentic. 

The reader is subject to a plethora of emotion but maybe it can be summed up by the gingerbread seller at the end of Chapter 25 - ‘That’s it lass. Weep. Weep yourself dry…… But you’ll get by lass. You’ll get by.’

My thanks to New/Nudge Books for a copy of this book. Reader, I enjoyed it. A lot. 

Monday, 18 March 2019

Death Has Deep Roots - Michael Gilbert

A multi layered crime tale, Death Has Deep Roots fuses WW2 and the Resistance with a compelling court room drama that keeps the reader guessing until nearly the end. Plenty of action and plenty of thinking in this competently written offering from the British Library Crime Classics series.

Michael Gilbert was a founding member of the Crime Writers Association, now chaired by Martin Edwards (who writes the most informative forewords to all these Crime Classics. They wouldn’t be the same without his input)and displays considerable expertise in this story. A thorough knowledge of police procedure and court room protocols guide the reader through a convincing labyrinth of leads and clues and ultimate conclusions. 

The story dips between the trial of Victoria Lamartine and the investigation of the murder she is accused of, creating a pleasing balance between the measured and even pace of the Central Criminal Court and the less even and much more tense events unfolding in France with Nap the solicitor’s son who is responsible for the Gallic enquiries. The legal sequences aren’t nail biting but they have a satisfying solidity about both the prosecution and defence arguments. 

I found this to be very much an events driven story rather than a character dominated novel. In this respect I found it quite unusual since it is usually the other way round!! There’s plenty to absorb the keen reader and those with an interest in WW2 will not be disappointed with those well researched sections of the book. And for those who enjoy the tempered wrangle and civil thrust of the judiciary there’s plenty here to encourage your thinking.

This is the first Michael Gilbert book I have read but I have two more courtesy of the British Library and I’m curious because apparently a feature of Gilbert’s writing is his propensity to use the same characters over again in varying degrees of importance within each book. Watch this space!!

As ever my thanks go to the British Library for continuing to satiate my unceasing appetite for this series of books. 

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Richard III

Okay, so I know this is primarily a bookish blog but a memory trigger today got me thinking about a trip I made a few years ago that meant a great deal to me. So I made a blog post about it.

It was March 22nd 2015, a Sunday afternoon. I was watching Channel 4. Richard III's coffin was being driven from Bosworth Field to Leicester Cathedral. I had followed the story of the king in the car park avidly so this was essential viewing. While I was watching I received a text message from a friend, also watching, who has a similar interest in history. The message read, 'Do you fancy driving up to Leicester to see the coffin?' I didn't hesitate. 'You bet.' was my reply.

So at some ungodly hour on March 25th we set off for Leicester. We arrived just before 8.00 in the morning and we parked at the first opportunity in this unknown city. Too early to get our bearings or ask anyone. It was a shopping mall car park. Practically deserted at this hour.  We descended in the lift.  A young girl was waiting to go up in as we left so we asked her if we were anywhere near the cathedral. She looked horrified and told us, 'No, it was quite a way away.'

This wasn't what we wanted to hear so we wandered around at ground level and stood bewildered in the street needing to make a decision. One of us, and I think it was me, spotted a grand ecclesiastical looking building far down a lone avenue. Something about the road looked familiar from the TV programme. So we started towards it. With each step we became increasingly less confident that this was the right direction. We saw some people standing by a bus stop.  We asked if we were heading the right way for the cathedral. They just shrugged or shook their heads. A  lady walking in the opposite direction to us clearly heard the word 'cathedral' for she enquired if that was where we were headed. When we said yes she agreed to take us! She explained that she was only popping out for a coffee and it was no real problem to show us the way. We learned that she worked in the visitor centre but because all the activity of the last few days she taken the day off as she was exhausted. She bombarded us with information on our walk which was fascinating. She been witness to the progress of the excavation of the bones and had seen Phillipa Langley. 

Because of a fall I'd had previously in the week, as a precautionary measure I'd taken a walking stick with me. One reason was because I wasn't sure how long I could manage to stand before we could get in to see the coffin. The news had suggested that the queues were 3 or 4 hours long. So I asked our guide, who we learned was called Kath, if the queues had quietened down at all and she said no, quite the opposite, they had got longer and longer. My heart sank but she smiled and said. 'There is some provision for disabled people, let's go and ask.' Okay, I'm not disabled. I did feel bad. It seemed like false pretences. But my intuition said just go along with it. So we continued to follow her .

We passed numerous personnel in high visibility jackets, some of them seemed to know Kath. She asked one where disabled people should go. She was told there was provision round by the Chapter House. We went on none the wiser but Kath clearly knew exactly where that was and confidently led us forward.

We rounded the corner past, some grey stone buildings we'd been walking alongside for some several metres and saw the cathedral and the green and the outbuildings and the crowd snaking their way back through the cobbled streets and alleyways of Leicester. Kath approached one of the official, uniformed guides and asked again where disabled people should go and the guide said, 'Just go straight in!' 

So we went in the cathedral door and stood right next to  the coffin of King Richard III.

The time on the photo was recorded as 8:49 on March 25th. We'd barely been in Leicester an hour and we'd seen the coffin! Rather than drive straight back south again we decided to visit Bosworth Field. It all felt so right. As if that's what we 
had been destined to do. The next day I watched the funeral on TV. And I made a thank you card and sent it to Kath c/o The Richard III Visitors Centre, Leicester. 

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Burning Chambers - Kate Mosse

One of the first things that always strikes me when I read Kate Mosse’s historical fiction books is what a deep love she has of the Languedoc area of France. The passion shines through both the fiction and the fact. As always the historical research is thorough and plausible.

The Burning Chambers details the riots of Toulouse in 1562 between the Huguenots and the Catholics. Mosse creates a palpable picture of the carnage that occurred during those riots and the atmosphere of mistrust that ensued throughout the region.

But this is a book that’s more than ‘just’ the history and we would expect no less from Mosse, a master story teller and weaver of fictions. The story of Minou Joubert is the backbone of this tale and the unfolding of the secrets of her past. It’s cleverly done with little clues scattered throughout that interweave with the unfolding tale of the escalating conflict. 

Minou is a strong female lead character who primarily dominates the narrative for much of the book and when she doesn’t it is the male lead Piet Reydon who keeps it all going. I am loathe to detail too much of the plot. The book cover blurb contains all you need to know before reading. And once you start reading I’m pretty sure you won’t want to stop!

The story is beautifully constructed, setting a scene, allowing the reader to engage with the characters and throwing into the mix all manner of doubts as to the ultimate integrity of some of the players. There’s plenty of excitement and a tense conclusion as the survival of some of the key characters hangs in the balance. Finally the ends are tied together if the astute reader hadn’t already figured for themselves the secrets of the past. The narrative flows easily and although it is a 500+ page book you can read it as effortlessly as you might a more slender volume. Nothing is superfluous, the pace is maintained and engages the readers’ attention right through. 

Scattered throughout the book are some well observed truths that endure in out 21st century world,

You will know that if the lie is repeated often enough, in the face of the clearest evidence to the contrary, even the most level-headed of men start to believe it.. Falsehood easily becomes accepted truth.

‘…. human beings have learnt rather to repeat the mistakes of the past, and more vilely.

Of the arms dealer Pierre Delpech, ‘Which ever side won, he was in profit. His weapons killed without discrimination.

An possibly most pertinent of all, ‘How was it that, in more than three hundred and fifty years, so little had changed? So much suffering, such waste and cruelty. And for what?’

I personally enjoy historical fiction very much   I believe it fulfils an important role because it can present history in a palatable way to those disinclined to pick up a factual history book initially. But I  think there is a fine line between a believable fiction running alongside the history because the potential for contrivance is ever present. So a balance needs to be struck which I think Kate Mosse does. There are one or two instances here which strike as purely fictional devices but then it IS a work of fiction. But I think the real icing on the cake is when an historical novel sends you googling the actual event(s) in history. Did I do that, reader? Yes, I damn well did!! 

I also enjoyed my own personal serendipity; for having little or no knowledge of the Huguenots I’ve read two books already this year where the Huguenots feature. This one, obviously and Sonia Velton's Blackberry and Wild Rose.

It seems that this is the first in a series of books and I will look forward to furthering my acquaintance with these characters. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable, informative and entertaining read. My thanks to Nudge/New Books for a copy.