Monday, January 16, 2017

Agatha Christie = Mary Westmacott

I've always enjoyed Agatha Christie mysteries, so when I discovered that she also wrote non-mysteries under the name Mary Westmacott, I thought I would give one a try.

I found a copy of The Rose and the Yew Tree and it made perfect airplane reading just after Christmas.  It was a fun, interesting little novel, with shades of psychological drama that kept me engaged.  Overall, the premise is pretty implausible but the writing is solid and the structure of the story interesting.

The basic idea is that the narrator, Hugh Norreys is an invalid, paralyzed due to a traffic accident, and so is an observer.  He is convalescing during the close of WWII with his artist brother and political neophyte sister-in-law in Cornwall, where the local election brings a new man, John Gabriel, into the sphere of the resident fading gentry, a couple of elderly sisters and their young ward, Isabella.

The book is a study in class structure, prejudice, and opportunism as well as sexual freedom and limitations, free will, love, and sacrifice.  From a historical perspective, it was interesting to read about the 1945 election in Britain that gave the Labour party victory over Churchill's Conservative party.  Having just finishing watching The Crown, I appreciated the author's take on how that happened.

Sadly, none of the characters are particularly likable, and Isabella is more a symbol than a real person, but I enjoyed the story and didn't guess the way it worked until just before the author revealed all.  At her heart, Christie was a mystery storyteller and this was structured much as her mysteries were with the reader guessing at the outcome right to the end.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Reading Northumberland

I decided to forgo most reading challenges this year in order to read widely about Northumberland. I'm planning on hiking along Hadrian's Wall later this year and wanted to have the time to read about Roman Britain and life along the English/Scottish border over the past two millennia, fiction and non-fiction, geography, history, politics, romance, mystery, and natural history.

As a starting point, I asked Margaret from BooksPlease if she could recommend some books, as she lives in the area and has posted about her travels as well as books from the area.

She provided me with a wonderful list that she was able to get from a friend, and I thought I would share it here.  There's many more titles than I can get to, so I would love to hear from anyone who can recommend some of these or would steer me away from others.

Hunter Davies, A Walk Along the Wall

Rory Stewart: The Marches - A Borderland Journey Between England and Scotland

Carola Dunn, Murder on the Flying Scotsman (Daisy Dalrymple mysteries)

Anne Cleeves, Inspector Ramsay books (A Lesson in Dying; Murder in My Backyard; A Day in the Death of Dorothea Cassidy; Killjoy; The Healers; The Babysnatchers)

Bernard Cornwell ("Saxon" series, 9th century Northumbria) The Last Kingdom; The Pale Horseman; The Lords of the North; Sword Song

Charles Barnitz, The Deepest Sea (historical, Vikings)

Jonathan Aycliffe, Whispers in the Dark (ghosts, 1900s)

Lorna Hill, Northern Lights; Castle in Northumbria (actually, all of the Marjorie books) and almost all her pony and ballet books 

Rosemary Sutcliff - Hadrian's Wall in several; Eagle of the Ninth is partly set around Trimontium (Melrose)

Henry Treece, Legions of the Eagle 

Richard Denning, The Amber Treasure (6th century Northumbria)

Dorothy Dunnet, Lymond chronicles - Philippa's family live in Northumberland, so various parts of the six take place there

Robert Westall, The Wind-Eye (St Cuthbert, present day, children's); Kingdom by the Sea

Malcolm Archibald, Pryde's Rock (1st in Matthew Pryde series)

Ann Coburn, Glint (children's) - based on border legends

Rosalind Kerven, Grim Gruseome books were inspired by Northumbrian legends

Theresa Tomlinson, Wolf Girl (Whitby Abbey in 633 AD)

Mary Rhees Mercker, Northumberland Dreaming: A Past Life Remembered (not really a novel)

Nigel Tranter, Cheviot Chase; Lords of Misrule (Otterburn)

Kathleen Herbert, "Northumbria" Trilogy: Bride of the Spear; Queen of the Lightning; Ghost in the Sunlight

Anne Colledge, Falling into Fear (timeslip, children's, Durham Cathedral)

Amanda Baker, Eleanor and the Dragons of Death (set in Morpeth, children's)

Tom Sharpe, Throwback

Gordon Taylor, Cometh the Man (1820s)

Carla Nayland, Paths of Exile (605 AD)

Janet MacLeod Trotter, Chasing the Dream (mining and football); The Jarrow Lass

Roz Southey, Broken Harmony; Secret Lament; Sword and Song; Chords and Discords 

Audrey Howard, A Place Called Hope (romance)

Denis O'Connor, Pawtracks in the Moonlight

Colin Wilson, The Killer (County Durham)

A.J. Cronin, The Stars Look Down; The Northern Light

Nevil Shute, Ruined City (aka Kindling): shipbuilding

Donna Fletcher Crowe, A Very Private Grave

Margaret McAllister, High Crag Linn

Sue Hepworth, But I Told You Last Year I Loved You  

Penelope Gilliatt, Mortal Matters (shipbuilding / suffragettes; Braw Fell = Cragside)

Diana Norman, Makepeace Hedley books

Benita Brown

David Almond, Skellig; Kit’s Wilderness; The Fire Eaters

Jane Harvey, The Castle of Tynemouth (1806)

Hazel Osmond, Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe? 

Nancy Bond, Country of Broken Stone (children’s, archaeology, legends)

Wendy Perriam, Born of Woman 

Sir Walter Scott

Stephen Baxter, Conqueror

Trevor Hopkins, Bridge at War (YA, fantasy); World of Lyndesfarne series

Melvyn Bragg, Credo

Robert Swindells, Brother in the Land (YA, fantasy)

Nancy Farmer, The Sea of Trolls (children's, fantasy)

Gordon Honeycombe, Dragon Under the Hill (ghosts/legends)

Sunday, January 01, 2017

TBR Pile Challenge for 2016 - wrap up

I didn't join any TBR challenges but created a list from my shelves that I wanted to make sure I read in 2016.

Here's how I did.
  1. Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel - I finally read this wonderful book.  One of the best of 2016 for me.
  2. Blonde, by Joyce Carol Oates - about Marilyn Monroe, good but oppressive.  Glad when I finally finished this long book.
  3. The Perfect Summer, by Juliet Nicolson - about the summer of 1911, part of my WWI reading project and a wonderful non-fiction.
  4. Eventide, by Kent Haruf - one of my new favorite authors, this second book in his Holt, CO series was excellent.
  5. The French Lieutenant's Woman, by John Fowles - finally read this masterpiece, but still haven't seen the movie!
  6. Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson - good but oppressive, very creative with marvelous writing.
  7. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett - simply breathtaking.  Loved it, including the wrenching ending.
  8. Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott - okay, but not as much a fan of Lamott as I thought I was.
  9. Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives: The Industrial Resolution in Lancashire, by Sue Wilkes - fascinating look at the world my mother's family lived in.
  10. What Angels Fear, by C.S. Harris - first in a historical mystery series, featuring Sebastian St. Cyr, a nobleman who fought in the Napoleonic wars.  Really good, but never did a blog post on it.  Plan to read the next in the series in 2017.
Here's what I didn't finish...
  1. Time and Chance, by Sharon Kay Penman - next up chronologically in her wonderful historical fiction series, the continuing story of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine - currently reading this and loving it!
  2. The Forgotten Garden, by Kate Morton - started it but didn't care for the characters, not sure if I will resume.
  3. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini - I loved The Kite Runner, which was on my TBR Pile list in 2015, and loved it.  I hope to read this in 2017.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Back to the Classics 2016 Challenge - It's a Wrap

I give myself a C on this year's challenge.  I love reading classics and read more than show up on the challenge, but fitting them into categories proved to be a bit of a challenge.

I think 7 out of 12 is respectable but 5.5 were rereads, and 3 to 4 are generally considered children's fare.  Personally I don't think Jules Verne's book would be read by today's children, though I know it was a staple in years past.

I feel badly that I didn't get a translated classic read (I did get Emile Zola's The Paradise for this purpose, but ran out of time).  I also feel badly that I didn't get a non-white author of a classic done either.

1.  A 19th Century Classic - Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, reread

2.  A 20th Century Classic - By the Shores of Silver Lakeby Laura Ingalls Wilder, reread

3.  A classic by a woman author - Middlemarchby George Eliot, reread

4.  A classic in translation.

5.  A classic by a non-white author.

6.  An adventure classic - did a reread of Robert Louis Stevenson's incomparable Treasure Island, reread.

7.  A fantasy, science fiction, or dystopian classic.  Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, will never reread!

8.  A classic detective novel.

9.  A classic which includes the name of a place in the title. The Small House at Allington, by Anthony Trollope - book 5 in the Barsetshire novels.

10. A classic which has been banned or censored. I thought that Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes would qualify, but I couldn't find evidence that it had been banned or censored.

11. Re-read a classic you read in school (high school or college).  Emma by Jane Austen, reread.

12. A volume of classic short stories - Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories, by L.M. Montgomery, reread of the two stories that were chapters in Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Windy Poplars.

Potpourri of Classics

Now that we're in the final days of 2016 and Christmas and post-Christmas vacation to Florida are looming, I'm trying to tie up loose ends.  Here are some reviews of classics read in 2016 for the Back to the Classics Challenge that I didn't get around to reviewing when I read them.

For the 20th century classic category...

By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Earlier in the year I read Pioneer Girl, the original source material for the Little House series and was inspired to reread one of my favorites in the series, By the Shores of Silver Lake.  There is so much that I love about this book.  We get to experience what it was like for the Laura and her sisters and mother to ride a train for the first time, we get to experience life in a railroad shanty town and see the railroad being built, and we get to see a town being built out of nothing but prairie.

This book sets the stage for the rest of the series--we meet Mr. and Mrs. Boast and the Wilder brothers, and we learn about the landscape, the Big Slough, the lakes, and the winters.  I love the time the Ingalls spend in the surveyors house, I love Laura and Carrie sliding on the ice under the watchful gaze of the moon and the wolves, and I love hopefulness and energy that pervades the book along with the feeling of finally being home.

For the reread of a classic read in high school or college...

Emma, by Jane Austen

I read Emma first when I was in high school but it was for fun and not for school.  I read it next for a English lit survey class in college (Austen to Dickens - we also read Bleak House, Vanity Fair, and something else that slips my mind just now).

When I was young, I didn't care for Emma Woodhouse, and saw her, as so many do, as snobbish, meddling, and trivial.  I appreciated the novel Emma, though, and always enjoyed reading about the artistry of Austen in developing the story and keeping the reader and Emma in the dark about what was really going on with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, Mr. Elton and Harriet, and Mr. Knightley.

I did find, however, that as I got older and reread Emma, I grew to like Emma Woodhouse and see her for the kind, generous, well-intentioned, very young woman she was.  Yes, she was blind and self-centered, but she outgrew her immaturity in the course of her story.

I love the biting wit of Austen as well as insights and reflections on the plight of women, the vagaries of luck, and the strength of friends and family and community.

I've lost count as to the number of times I've read Emma, but I never get tired of it.  I know I shall read it again!

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holiday Reads

I just finished two pretty fun Christmas books--both are short story collections and they couldn't have been more different.

First up, Christmas with Anne and Other Holiday Stories, by L. M. Montgomery.  I'm an Anne of Green Gables fan from childhood and by far the best stories in this collection were the two extracted from the series.

The first is from AoGG, when Matthew gives Anne a dress with puffed sleeves--it's the first pretty dress that Anne has ever gotten, and she is thrilled, thankful, and blown away by Matthew's love for her.

The other Anne story was from Windy Poplars, when Katherine Brook comes to Green Gables with Anne over the Christmas holiday.  I always loved that part of the story and it was a joy to reread.

The rest of the stories in the collection were ones that the editor, Rea Wilmshurst, culled from various magazines, circa 1905.  They are fairly conventional stories in which either one of the following happens:
1) A poor family is struggling to have a Christmas for their children and a rich benefactor showers Christmas goodies on them at the last minute.
2)  A fractured family or arguing friends are reunited due to a mistake of some sort that makes them celebrate Christmas together and mend broken fences.

My favorite was one in which a country woman feeds a train car full of various people out of her voluminous hamper when the train is stranded over night on Christmas Eve due to a snowstorm.  The spirit of giving and friendship shines through this one, without it being overly saccharine.

This was a quick book to read, a bit too sweet for my taste, but pure heaven to spend some quality time with Anne again.

The second collection of stories was The Mistletoe Murder: And Other Stories, a set of four stories, by P.D. James.  This is my first time reading James and I can finally appreciate her for the fabulous mystery writer she was.  All four were all well-crafted, tight, and interesting.  The first was a classic country house murder, the second an unreliable narrator, and the third and fourth featured Adam Dalgleish.

The setting was Christmas, but that was really the only thing Christmasy about these stories--no change of heart, no uplifting sentiments, just murder most foul...but very entertaining!

I'm keeping track of my Christmas reading, year to year, here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016


I've been wanting to reread George Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch, for awhile now, so decided to read it along with the GoodReads Victorians group.  They provided a nice easy reading schedule that spanned six weeks, and it was a very enjoyable way to revisit an absolute favorite.

Here's what I wrote for my summation on the group chat (SPOILERS BELOW).

This is my 4th or 5th time reading this wonderful book, and I absolutely love it. It's been probably ten years since I last read it, and it's so rich and dense and beautiful that it was still fresh and endlessly interesting. 

I liked how you [Frances, a GoodReads moderator] summed up the three threads as comedy, tragedy, and drama.  Fred and Mary were comic, Rosamond and Lydgate were tragic, and Dorothea and Will were romantic.

I adore Fred and Mary also--I know there is a big contingent out there that say that Mary should have married Farebrother because he "deserved" her, but Fred earned her respect and always had her love. I loved the glimpse the narrator gave us of their life together, growing older, comfortable and happy.

Lydgate and Rosamond are a tragic couple. His big, tender heart could never touch her tiny, cold one, but in the end, he did the right thing and sacrificed his ideals and ambitions to fulfill his end of the marriage contract.

Dorothea and Will are such a romantic couple, and Dorothea is one of my all-time favorite characters. In her sorrow and trouble, she never stopped trying to help others. Going to see Rosamond after witnessing the scene between Will and Rosamond was heroic and selfless and so admirable.

And that closing paragraph--it is magnificent and neatly encapsulates what Eliot was going for in Dorothea, her modern St Teresa:

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Things are not so ill with you and me because people like Dorothea quietly and persistently try to make the world a better place.Finally, I think the narrator is one of the kindest, most sympathetic in all of literature. She is sort of like Mr. Garth himself--admiring those who work and are busy with business, but forgiving and tender-hearted and willing to help her poor, dear characters find their way in the world despite their weaknesses and follies. Everyone has a story, and those stories have light as well as shadows, and everyone's story is worth telling.

This brings my Back to the Classics reading challenge for 2016 up to seven completed.  Not great, but not bad either.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Lab Girl

I'm really torn between 4 and 5 stars for Lab Girl, a memoir by scientist Hope Jahren.  On the one hand, I loved the plant science, the discussion of life as a university scientist and professor, and the insights into living with mental illness.  On the other hand, I did find Jahren a bit wearying.  In a way, she is like Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild.  Their lives and issues make for good memoirs but neither is someone I warm to, have much in common with, or want to spend a lot of time with.  That's not to say I don't derive insight and inspiration from their stories, but...they are a bit wearying.

I listened to audio versions of both Lab Girl and Wild, which I think was good.  I only experienced the books driving around, doing errands, rather than long reading sessions by the fire.  Neither of these memoirs lend themselves to long reading sessions by the fire.

In addition to learning about trees, grasses, mushrooms, radishes, botany, earth science, and what the dinosaurs ate, I loved the sections of the book where Jahren connected a part of her story with a particular piece of literature.  By far my favorite was the section, fairly early, where she is a student and working in a hospital pharmacy and she links it beautifully to David Copperfield.  This thread is not a single strand but an intricately developed literary construct that plays in several ways.  For that section alone, I bumped it from 4 to 5 stars on GoodReads.  Anyone who can make sense of their life and situation by relating them to David Copperfield is worth reading and listening to.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Wishin' and Hopin'

Last December I read I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb, and then moved straight into holiday reading in a big way. I really loved  I Know This Much is True and did a search on other books by Wally Lamb, and discovered that he had a Christmas novella, Wishin' and Hopin', which I promptly got and vowed to read as part of this year's holiday reading.

It was so much fun!

Felix Funicello lives with his parents and two older sisters in Three Rivers, Connecticut, same town where Dominick and Thomas live in I Know This Much is True, but apart from great writing, including sterling dialogue (and writing realistic dialogue for 5th graders isn't easy!), the two works don't have anything in common really.

Felix is an adorable kid (ala Dondi--I haven't thought of Dondi for probably 40 years!).  He's smart without being precocious or annoying, innocent without being unbelievable.  His best friend is 12-year old Lonny who has been held back and has a tough homelife, and who attempts to educate him on the birds and bees, when his father stumbles in this department.

We have a Catholic school setting, a French-Canadian substitute teacher, a new girl from the Soviet Union, a Pillsbury Bake-off, and an insufferable top-of-class, know-it-all girl with rich parents (Muffy from PBS's Arthur was who I kept thinking of, but she at least had a heart).  Lamb clearly had a whole lot of fun writing this novella and inventing screwy names for his characters, Sister Dymphana is a great example.

Oh, and did I mention that Felix's father is a distant cousin of Annette Funicello, whom the family all worship?

The final Christmas pageant that the school puts on is the best slapstick routine I've read since The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, and it had me laughing out loud.

If you're still looking for great short holiday stories to fill out your holiday reading this year, I heartily recommend this one.

I just discovered there was a movie version of this in 2014.  Now, I have to find it and watch, but meanwhile here's a scene from the movie.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


I always like to read a few just-released books each year and since I am a newbie on the Ann Patchett fan club bus, I picked Commonwealth as one of my books released this year to read.  It was good, very good, but not in the same category of wow as Bel Canto for me, from which I don't want anyone to conclude that I didn't like the book.  

Despite having read a few reviews, I went into it with no real notion of what it was about.  In a nutshell, it is about divorce and what that does to families.  Two families, the Cousins and the Keatings both live in Los Angeles in the 1960s, and when Bert Cousins crashes a christening party at the Keating house, he changes the course of the lives of everyone in both households.

The really interesting part is that one of the characters, Franny Keating, tells her novelist lover about her childhood and how her family and the Cousins became entangled, and he turns that into an award-winning novel, called Commonwealth.  I do like the meta twist to the story and I think it adds an interesting layer to the concepts of family history, privacy, and relationships that Patchett explores in her novel.

I love the cover, by the way, with the oranges that are so much a part of the opening of the story. Made me long for a citrus tree of my own.