Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell is the first in his 10-book Saxon Chronicles Series.

Here's what Cornwell says about the series on his website:
The Saxon Stories tell the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants through the eyes of Uhtred, an English boy born into the aristocracy of ninth-century Northumbria, captured by the Danes and taught the Viking ways. 
A year or so ago, I watched the first episode of the TV series based on the books, and thought it well-done and interesting but too gory for my taste.

However, in my Reading Northumberland project, this series surfaced as a great way to fill in the gaps between the Romans and the Reivers, so I decided to read book 1 and see how I liked it.  The verdict is in--I loved The Last Kingdom and ordered the next book in the series, The Pale Horseman.

I thought Uhtred was an excellent hero.  Encountering him as a young boy, I got to see the world of the Britons as well as the world of the invading Danes through his eyes.  Watching him grow up, with dueling allegiances to the tribe of his father and that of his adopted father, the Danish warrior Ragnar, was a great way to learn about the customs, biases, and motivations of both camps. Ragnar was also a wonderful character, and I could see why Uhtred loved him more than he did his own father.  Uhtred is by no means a saintly character--he is full of flaws and reckless impulses but the core of the character is solid gold and I look forward to reading more about how he fares.

The book is extremely readable, despite all the place names being old English. Thank goodness for the map and the list of place names and their modern equivalents at the front of the book, both of which I referred to constantly.

This is definitely an adventure book.  Just knowing that there are 10 books in the series kept me calm while Uhtred got into one hair-raising escapade after another.  It's also pretty gory--life in general in the 9th century was brutal, short, messy, hard, and tenuous.  The battle scenes in particular were pretty graphic for me, but easier to read than to watch! Despite that, the world Cornwell portrays also has room for love, loyalty, friendship, humor, and a reverence for beauty and nature.

I'm actually thinking about giving the TV series another try. I know it will gory, but in reading the book after watching episode 1, it seems that they stuck to the book version fairly faithfully.  Of course, one episode isn't enough of a test.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Travel Gadgets

We're now under three weeks in the countdown to the Hadrian's Wall path trek.  In addition to daily walks, hikes with backpacks, and core strength training, I've been shopping for gadgets.  Here are some of my favorites.

Collapsible water bottle - my husband, Jeff, likes to carry water in a pouch in his backpack, but I don't and so I carry water in my backpack's side pockets.  Regular water bottles take up a lot of room in luggage so I was thrilled to find this collapsible version. I tried it out and it works great!

Sleeping scarf for the plane/train - I don't like those half-donut pillows; they're not comfortable, they take up a lot of room, and the ones you inflate are even less comfortable for me.  I found this online and got one and tried it out in a living room chair.  I'm hopeful it will work, and it packs to a pretty compact size.

No, this isn't me, this is the model on Amazon!

Waist pack - I have a couple of fanny packs already but they were too big for what I wanted, which was a handy pack to wear in front, containing passports, wallet, maps for the day, and phone--all of which I want easy access to.  Plus the ones I already have were bigger than I needed and had water bottle holders, which I already have on my backpack.  I found this little guy, and it's perfect.

Day pack - this Rick Steves day pack scrunches down to a very small size and will only come out for evening walks for dinner, or when we can drop our backpacks at a B&B early and then explore an area.  I can fit a light sweatshirt or poncho inside, and it can carry water bottles, snacks, and a guide book or souvenir, should we be lucky enough to find a handy gift shop.

Go Pro - our one expensive gadget for the trip. Hadrian's Wall sites are focusing on the Roman Army this summer, and I am expecting to have opportunities to video-record reenactments and living history exhibitions.  Plus, we'll be at Chesters Fort for a Roman Cavalry demonstration.  It's tiny, compatible with my iPhone and iPad, and easily fits in the waist pack.

Wrist GPS - not a new gadget for the trip, but Jeff wears this on all our hikes and it will certainly be part of this journey.

Swiss Army Knife - don't leave home without it--though it has to go in checked luggage.


iPhone - even without a signal, it provides GPS, flashlight, stopwatch, alarm, clock, etc.

Multi-port USB to UK adapter charger - we can plug in two iPhones, a iPad, and my Garmin fitness tracker (so I can count my steps on the trek), all at one time!

What's your favorite travel gadget?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Odd Birds

I have never watched Pretty Little Liars, and my twenty-something daughter has assured me that I will not like it, but I did find a book by one of the stars, Ian Harding, absolutely delightful.

Odd Birds by Ian Harding is a memoir of a birder.  He's young, a mere thirty years old, which I think lends to the overall charm of the book.  I love it when people own up to their nerdy passions and reach out to share their experiences with others.  Harding was a birder from a young age, and then fell out of practice when he hit puberty. It was only after college, after moving to LA to pursue an acting career, that a chance spotting of a hooded merganser reignited the latent birder in him.

I enjoyed reading about his trips around southern California looking for birds and he found a few of my personal favorites--the yellow-billed magpie (which we both spotted near Pinnacles National Park while looking for condors), kestrels, American dippers, and acorn woodpeckers.

I also enjoyed reading about his acting life.  Every so often it's a real treat to get a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into producing a TV series--from auditions, to make up, to wardrobe, read-throughs, sets, and co-stars.  I love learning about how an industry functions.

Harding is self-effacing, modest, grateful, and enthusiastic about life, friends, family, and nature. Odd Birds is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and Harding seems like a likable person with a bright future.

Friday, June 02, 2017

A Walk Along the Wall

A Walk Along the Wall, by Hunter Davies, was written in the mid-1970's and chronicles Davies' experience of walking Hadrian's Wall east to west over a nine-month time period decades before the official Wall Path was established in 2003.  I first started the book months ago, and then got frustrated because I felt the info was so out of date, as so much excavation has occurred since then, not to mention the establishment of an official foot path for the 84 mile route.  So, I read up on the wall and learned a lot, and decided to tackle the book again.  This time I found it delightful--nostalgic (I was a teen in the 1970s and so it was fun to revisit that world) and informative, chock full of anecdotes and side stories.

Davies grew up in the Carlisle area, and so brought a local's perspective to the party.  He also spread out his visit over quite a long time span, and visited castles and manors along the way, meeting landowners, farmers, shopkeepers, and tavern owners, all of whom had their take on the wall and the history and the landscape.  So many of the blogs I've read of other Hadrian Wall walkers are those who take 5-7 days to walk the route, so mostly they write about the landscape, the lodging and eating options, and the weather.  All important aspects of the walk, but Davies's book gave me a lot more to research, look up, and add to our itinerary.

Even though we will be walking 43 years after Davies did his walk, much of what he liked and thought worth mentioning is still there, although the museums now seem much more robust and less dusty than he describes and certainly there are more lodging and eating options than when he did his trip.  Plus he went during all the seasons of the year--even now, I believe mid-winter along the wall is still more like he experienced than what mid-summer then and now.

As you might have guessed, A Walk Along the Wall is part of my Reading Northumberland project. Five weeks to go before departure!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Books for Living

I read and really enjoyed Will Schwalbe's The End of Your Life Book Club, and so I knew I would also read and probably enjoy his most recent book about books, Books for Living.  I read it in May and did enjoy it but not quite as much as the End of  Your Life.  I think that probably is because there were fewer books in the more recent book that I was familiar with, less to relate to, I suppose.  More importantly, there were fewer books that Will discussed that I felt compelled to read myself.

For example, he talks a lot about Lin Yutang's The Importance of Living, a book and author I had not heard of, and while he mentions some interesting ideas that Yutang promotes, there was a bit of a disconnect for me as it didn't really sound like a book I would like.

I have read E.B. White's Stuart Little but not in decades and I found it a distant second to the incomparable Charlotte's Web.  It touched me so little that I never foisted it upon my own children. It was interesting to read about why Will liked it so much and found in Stuart a role model, but I don't feel motivated to reread it myself.

I did resonate with his love of David Copperfield--I share a deep love for that book as well, but we each got something quite different from it.  I see Steerforth as one of Dickens' amoral villains, and Will found him flawed but not horrible and dismissed his betrayal of Little Emily more easily than I found palatable.

We were definitely on common ground with Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. I absolutely love this book, and I was totally in sync with Will's admiration for Lamott's voice in this book. I've read it at least three times, and am looking forward to reading it again.

The one book that I did come away from this reading wanting to read myself was Anne Morrow Lindberg's Gift from the Sea. The structure of it, as described by Will, appeals to me.  I find her intriguing and Will's discussion of her life as that of a celebrity wife as well as author was interesting.

I might also read Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener, if only because the basic idea of a person refusing to leave the premises after he's fired surfaced in other story lines recently and I got to brag about knowing "the source" of that plot point.

What I really liked most about Books for Living, however, was the memoir part of the book.  Will talks about his life as a young gay man in the 70s and 80s, how he was personally affected by the AIDS epidemic.  We are roughly the same age, and the books and movies and other trappings of life during this time were familiar and real to me.  I like the idea of talking about your life in the context of the books that shaped you and helped you find your place and space in the world.  For both Will and me, books provided role models, and reading created purpose and structure.

In the end, it doesn't matter that I haven't read many of the books that shaped Will.  I feel richer having read about the books that matter to him. I think that might be his point after all.  We both value our reading lives, and part of the enjoyment is discussing books, those I've read and those I haven't.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Homegoing and Vinegar Girl

These two books don't have much in common except that they are part of a set.  Homegoing was one of the Tournament of Books selections this year, and Vinegar Girl is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project in which modern popular authors tackle retelling some of Shakespeare's plays.

I knew I wanted to read Homegoing from the moment I heard about it and saw its wonderful, vibrant, promising cover. I've made a conscious effort to read more slave stories as a way of trying to balance the >50 years in which I read none, but apart from that I loved the premise.  Basically, two half sisters in 18th century Africa who have never met are the genesis for two narratives--one girl remains in Africa as do her descendants, while the other is sold into slavery and her descendants are part of the American experience.

This was a fascinating way to travel both lines through history, and I really enjoyed hearing about both sets of stories and people equally.  The writing was excellent--powerful, straightforward, and flexible, meaning that I was impressed that the author, Yaa Gyasi, was able to give each character a unique voice that made him/her memorable as an individual.

Homegoing rates as one of the best books I've read so far this year.  Interestingly, in the Tournament of Books, Underground Railroad was named the champion, and Homegoing came in second.  It's all opinion, but while both are 5-star books, I preferred Homegoing.  Maybe it's the span of time, the richness and variety of characters and stories, some that intersect and some that don't.  I found Homegoing the more satisfying novel, though both were equally thought-provoking and powerful.

Compared to Homegoing, Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler was pretty fluffy.  Here's what I wrote for my GoodReads review:

Wish that I could give this weird book another half star [I gave it 3]. It's a weird book because the basic storyline is pretty hard to work with as anyone who has seen Taming of the Shrew will tell you. Tyler does an okay job with modernizing the premise of a "Vinegar Girl" (i.e., a sharp-tongued, no nonsense woman) needing to get married, which is not an easy task--really, no one "needs" to get married these days, but Tyler came up with a reasonable reason. My main problem with the book is that Tyler's setting is contemporary Baltimore but the total feel of the setting is "Leave it to Beaver" land. The setting is so anachronistic that it's unsettling.

For example, there are no 2017 parents who would send their children to the preschool where Kate works as Tyler describes it--the parents sound modern, but the teachers and aides are completely unrealistic. Makes me wonder if Tyler has been in a 21st century preschool. And the notion that "everyone" started treating Kate differently when she announced her engagement because she was no longer doomed to be a single woman is preposterous.

But, and here's what saves the book for me, Tyler dealt in a wonderful way with that awful speech that Kate and her husband make at the end of Taming of the was so fitting and fun to read that I forgave Tyler for the weirdness of her anachronistic world.

Since I compared Homegoing to Underground Railroad, it's only fair that I compare Vinegar Girl with the other Shakespeare Project book that I've read so far, Hag-Seed.  They are light years apart. Hag-Seed was an interpretation of The Tempest and it made me look at the original, its themes and characters and plot, in a new way.  Vinegar Girl was a modernization with nothing really interesting or new to say about Taming of the Shrew. It was a fun read but not really memorable.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

A Flurry of Wonderful Books

Life has been busy these days and I haven't done a good job of blogging about books finished, so here's a catchup post.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald - when I first heard about this non-fiction memoir, I thought I wanted to read it, but then I read mixed reviews, but ended up loving the audio version, as read by the author.  For me, it was a perfect mix of bird info (and I love hawks in particular, though not the fanatic that Helen is), personal memoir (Helen trains a goshawk as a means of dealing with her grief over her father's sudden death), and literary bio (Helen discusses the life and hawking experiences of T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King as a context for understanding and explaining her relationship to Mabel, the goshawk she acquires and trains).  I thought the premise and structure and writing were all excellent.  I listened to this book while driving 200 miles a day for a week to be with my 93-year old mother while she was hospitalized for some serious complications to the whole aging process and I found that this book helped calm me down, took me out of my own worry, and helped me focus on making good decisions during that very hard week.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier - I read this with the GoodReads Tuesday Book Talk group and though it was reread, I had read it so long ago that I couldn't remember most of the details beyond the broad outline of the story.  DMM is not only a master of the psychological thriller, she is also a master of reader manipulation.  I find it interesting that both of DMM's masterpieces, this novel and Rebecca, are essentially designed to make the reader forgive a murderer for his deed.  There's a new movie version that is about to be released and I'm on the fence about whether I want to see it.  It is an oppressive, frustrating story, and I'm not sure I'm in the mood for that right now.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead - an excellent novel, innovative, compelling, and well-written.  That said, I'm still struggling with how I feel about the construct of the Underground Railroad itself.  In this novel, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad--with tracks in tunnels, physical stations, and physical locomotives and cars.  In a way, pushing the story into a fantasyland instead of keeping it in a historical context almost seemed to eclipse the accomplishments of the people who implemented the historical Underground Railroad.  I need to think about this book some more, but reading it was an incredible experience.

After Flodden, by Rosemary Goring - part of my Reading Northumberland reading project, this time I read about the aftermath of the Battle of Flodden in 1513 in which the English annihilated the Scots. I found it very readable with a wonderful cast of characters (it is a novel) who illuminated this period of English/Scottish border history for me.  I've got the sequel to this book, Dacre's War, on order and hope to read it later this month.

Castle, by David Macaulay - a children's book but one that explains the basic structure and function of the the various parts of a typical medieval castle.  I loved the illustrations and the clear, interesting text about the building of a castle and its walled town in Wales.

Happy May and happy reading!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Top Ten Things That Will Make Me Instantly NOT Want To Read A Book

Today's Top Ten Tuesday theme, sponsored by The Broke and the Bookish, is sure to bring out the curmudgeon in least it did in me.

While I won't not read a book that I want to read because of any of the following gripes, if I am casually browsing, looking for a book to read on an airplane or while away time in the dentist office, these are not the way to sell me on a book's virtues.

  1. Anything described as "instant classic" - honestly, there's no such thing and the hype makes me gag.  It's not a classic if it's under 50 years old, so let's let the test of time weed out the duds.
  2. Books described as "xx meets xx" - as in "Jane Eyre meets Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" - this doesn't tell me anything about whether I will like it, just that the publicist is trying to appeal to every demographic there is.
  3. Movie tie-in books - for the most part, I want to read the book first and not because there's a movie along with it, and I tend to like my covers to not have photos with the leading characters from the movie version splashed across them. 
  4. Back covers and inside front covers that have quote after breathless quote endorsing the book without a single line describing what the book is about.
  5. Bookclub seals - ala the Oprah Book Club.  That's not to say that Oprah doesn't usually pick good books, but I don't want her seal on my book, just like I tend to not wear clothes that have Izod alligators, Polo ponies, or Nike swooshes.
  6. Hardbound only - I tend to prefer my books paperback.  Easier to read, less to fuss with (i.e., dust jackets).  
  7. Footnotes on most pages.  Really a big turnoff for fiction, but almost as annoying in non-fiction.  I like notes at the end of chapters or clustered at the end of the book.  They get in the way of the narrative otherwise and make me feel guilty for not reading them.
  8. Hard to read type - it can't be too small or too ornate or too archaic (using a typeface to generate a mood is a bad idea, imo).
  9. Too many non-English phrases - I will suffer through occasional French, Spanish, German or whatever phrases, and even look up translations, but pages of non-English text will send me back to the stacks. Ditto pages of long poems or song lyrics.  I skip these for the most part.
  10. Black and white photos - I like non-fiction illustrations to be in living color.
Do any of these resonate with you?  Any that I missed?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Steel Bonnets

Steel Bonnets by Flashman author, George MacDonald Fraser, is a non-fiction account of the English/Scottish border troubles that plagued the area from Elizabethan to Georgian times.

I confess that I didn't finish the book as it got too ponderous for me, but the first half was quite interesting.  The border lands during this time period make the American Wild West look positively tame.  Cattle raids, family feuds, lynchings, lawlessness, pillage, revenge, spite, and sheer dastardliness were the norm.  It was absolutely crazy, and neither the English nor the Scottish governments were at all effective in curtailing the violence.

The opening of the pages of the book was absolutely priceless -- go to Amazon and "Look Inside" and read pages 1 and 2. Basically, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Billy Graham are archetypical Border Reivers.  My imagination has been having fun putting Richard Nixon in a steel bonnet.

And the rest of the introduction, including the bit about Hadrian's Wall and Roman Britain, were terrific and definitely germane to my current interest in Reading Northumberland, but after awhile I felt I just didn't need to read any more anecdotes about the uniformly rotten people who made life hell for those who were simply trying to stay alive and keep their families fed and safe.

As I walk the Hadrian's Wall Path this July, I will be on the lookout for Peel towers as well as traces of Roman Britain, thanks to Steel Bonnets.

From Wikipedia: Arnside Tower, a late-medieval Pele tower in Cumbria

Now, that I have a better understanding of the history of the area and the social and political dynamics, I may revisit Dorothy Dunnett's Game of Kings, which I abandoned a few weeks ago.

I'm glad I read as much of Steel Bonnets as I did, but also glad I didn't feel compelled to soldier on.

Monday, April 03, 2017


Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood's retelling of Shakepeare's The Tempest, came to my attention because it was on the long list of the Tournament of Books for 2017, and I wanted to read a few of the contenders early in the year.  It turns out that Hag-Seed is also part of the Hogarth Press's Shakespeare Project in which popular modern authors revisit some of Shakespeare popular plays and do a modern rendition.

Here's what the Hogarth Press has to say about this project:
For more than four hundred years, Shakespeare’s works have been performed, read, and loved throughout the world. They have been reinterpreted for each new generation, whether as teen films, musicals, science-fiction flicks, Japanese warrior tales, or literary transformations. The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917 with a mission to publish the best new writing of the age. In 2012, Hogarth was launched in London and New York to continue the tradition. The Hogarth Shakespeare project sees Shakespeare’s works retold by acclaimed and bestselling novelists of today. The series launched in October 2015 and to date will be published in twenty countries.
Honestly, I don't often care for the results of projects like this, but since I really do like The Tempest I gave Hag-Seed a try, despite not much caring for the only other book I 've read by Atwood, The Blind Assassin.

Thankfully, it was worth the plunge.  I enjoyed everything about Hag-Seed.  I thought it imaginative, relevant, well-written with convincing characters and dialogue, and thoughtful.

The basic idea is that the Prospero character, Felix, is unfairly stripped of his director job at a Canadian theatre company, and goes into exile with the ghost of his dead daughter until circumstances provide him with the opportunity to teach his enemies a lesson and right the wrongs done to him.  The circumstances happen to be his staging of a production of The Tempest at a prison where he has been working as a literacy teacher, bringing Shakespeare to the inmates. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but the staging of the play is incredible.

There's a lot going on in Hag-Seed, and I'm not sure it would be nearly as enjoyable if I hadn't known The Tempest fairly well. I've read it multiple times and seen it on the stage three or four times, and seen several movie versions.  I hope they make a movie of this book, because I would absolutely love to see this production.

In addition to Felix and his set of inmates who play the rest of the characters--and his casting notes are priceless--I loved how Felix explained The Tempest, in the context of his own life.  What makes Shakespeare timeless is that reader after reader, generation after generation, can see their own situation in his words, and this book illuminates that beautifully.  Felix, teaching The Tempest in a prison because he is exiled from theatre company, has made imprisonment and revenge the major themes of his production. Half the time, reading Hag-Seed was like reading first rate lit crit, which I love to do.

Final note--I read part of the novel as an e-book and then checked out the audio version, and listened to part of it.  The reader's voice reminded me of Kevin Kline, who I think would be perfect in the role of Felix...should they ever make a movie of this marvelous book.

Has anybody else read any of the titles in the Hogarth Shakespeare Project? Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler's take on The Taming of the Shrew, has some appeal as does Shylock is My Name, by Howard Jacobson.