Monday, December 31, 2012

Top Ten Books of 2012

Here's my list of the best books I read in 2012. No rereads & I've cheated a little by including two series & lumping two books by the one author together. There is no order to the list & it's a mixture of Fiction & Non Fiction. Follow the links to my reviews.

In the year of the Bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, it was inevitable that I would read something by the great man. I read the last two of his novels that I had never read before, Barnaby Rudge & Martin Chuzzlewit. Put off by the stodgy names & reputation for unreadability, I was surprised at how much I loved both books. Knowing very little about the plots was also an advantage. I was eager to find out what happened to everyone. I also reread Great Expectations, The Mystery of Edwin Drood & A Christmas Carol.

Staying with Dickens, Michael Slater's The Great Charles Dickens Scandal was much-anticipated & didn't disappoint. A drily witty, succinct account of the lengths that Dickens went to to hide his relationship with Nelly Ternan & the efforts everyone else has gone to ever since to find out what really happened.

The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the most harrowing book I've ever read. The story of Scott's last expedition to find the South Pole, this is a beautifully-written account of hardship & determination by one who was there.

Almost as harrowing was Germinal by Emile Zola. Like all Zola's novels, this is an absorbing journey into the lives of the working people of 19th century France. The scenes in the mines are unforgettable & chilling in their horror.

I'm including a couple of series in my Top 10 because I can't choose just one book & I read them as a whole so it's easier to just nominate all of them. Bloomsbury have re-released many of Ann Bridge's novels as POD paperbacks & e-books. I loved the Julia Probyn series which I started last year & finished reading in August with Julia in Ireland. Julia is a female James Bond - beautiful, intelligent, well-connected & resourceful. I loved her adventures, set in exotic locations in Europe such as Emergency in the Pyrenees.

Martin Edwards has also benefited from the e-book revolution. After being out of print for some years, his Harry Devlin series is now available in paperback or as e-books. I've read the first two books, All the Lonely People & Suspicious Minds, & I have the third downloaded & ready to go. Harry is a lawyer in 1990s Liverpool & the atmosphere of the city & Harry's dogged pursuit of justice make the series compelling reading. Harry's adventures will keep me happy while I wait for the next Lake District mystery, The Frozen Shroud, to be published next year.

Catherine Aird's standalone novel, A Most Contagious Game, was a delight with its echoes of Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time. I loved the way that research was still done in libraries & newspaper archives (it was first published in 1967) & the historical aspect to the modern-day mystery was fascinating.

More history in Linda Gillard's The Glass Guardian. The legacy of WWI combined with a romantic ghost story set in wintry modern-day Skye was the most all-consuming reading experience I had this year. I read it virtually in one sitting, just wonderful.

I read very little historical fiction these days but Hilary Mantel is the exception. Bring Up The Bodies continues the story of Thomas Cromwell begun in Wolf Hall & brilliantly retells the story of the fall of Anne Boleyn. We all know how the story ends but this novel read like a thriller. An amazing achievement.

Queen Victoria's Letters to her daughter Vicky, Empress of Germany are touching, opinionated, gossipy & compelling. Vicky left England when she was only 17 & the letters selected here cover history, politics & family matters. The Folio Society edition is also beautifully produced with some gorgeous plates as well.

Well, that's it for 2012. I'm looking forward to plenty of good reading in 2013 & will be back in a couple of days with some thoughts about reading plans for the year. Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Alfred, Lord Tennyson


I've been thinking about Tennyson (picture from here) lately. He's not a poet I've read much of but he's always been there in the background of my reading. In the wonderful photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites that took his poetry for inspiration & in the reminiscences of the great & good of Victorian England. A couple of weeks ago, I read an interesting review of a new biography of Tennyson &, of course, it mentioned In Memoriam, his most famous work, written in response to the death of his great friend, Arthur Hallam. It sent me off to the bookshelves to look up the poem & while I was reading bits & pieces of it, I came across this lovely poem, so appropriate for the New Year.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light;
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
   For those that here we see no more,
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Conundrums for the Long Week-end - Robert Kuhn McGregor with Ethan Lewis

... the fictional history of Peter Wimsey has become emblematic of its time. Unlike practically any of the other famous fictional detectives, Lord Peter Wimsey's career was fully defined by a single epoch. He came to life as the long week-end began in the wake of the Great War; he disappeared as World War II sealed the week-end's close.

The subtitle of this book is England, Dorothy L Sayers & Lord Peter Wimsey. The authors have combined literary criticism & social history to place Peter Wimsey & Dorothy L Sayers in the England of the interwar period. As Sayers is my favourite Golden Age detective novelist, this book was always going to appeal to me. It was written in 2000 & I'm almost sure I read it back then. However, seeing it in a recommended list of e-books on Amazon was enough to inspire me to download it & read it again over the last few days.

McGregor & Lewis have looked at the life of Dorothy L Sayers & tell the story of how she came to write the Wimsey books. At first, she wrote them for the money. She was an avid reader of detective stories & thrillers & throughout the series she makes some quite pointed comments about other writers. She was also unhappy in her personal life with several frustrating & unfulfilling relationships & the birth of her illegitimate son, John Anthony. She kept her son's existence a secret from almost everyone & especially her parents. She worked as a teacher &, more famously, at Benson's advertising agency, until the success of the Wimsey novels enabled her to concentrate on her writing.

The other focus of the book is the political & social history of the period between the wars. Famously called The Long Week-end by Robert Graves & Alan Hodge in their book of this name, McGregor & Lewis trace the preoccupations of Sayers & her world in the themes & settings of the novels. Each chapter begins with an overview of the political & social situation in England & Europe & then the discussion moves on to Sayers's life & the novels she was working on. This certainly focuses the reader on the topicality of many of the plots & social settings of the books, especially the far-reaching impact of the Great War on England. Peter Wimsey suffered from shell-shock & the after-effects of this are evident in the early books of the series. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club begins on Armistice Day & features several characters who have been damaged by their war service. Have His Carcase is set at Wilvercombe, a watering place where middle-aged women fall in love with gigolos & the agricultural slump leads to the commission of a horrible murder.

Sayers had an intellectual interest in the writing of detective fiction & wrote Introductions to several collections of stories by the best-known authors in the genre. She especially acknowledged the influence of Wilkie Collins & Sheridan LeFanu, the 19th century writers who paved the way for Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace & the Golden Age writers. As a graduate of Oxford, Sayers was also interested in the role of women in society & her creation of Harriet Vane, detective novelist, accused murderer & the woman Peter Wimsey wants to marry, allows her to explore this theme. Through Harriet, Sayers is able to discuss the writing of detective fiction as well as provide a compelling portrait of a professional woman. My favourite novel in the series, Gaudy Night, is the least conventional as a detective novel. Set mainly in a women's college at Oxford, Harriet takes centre stage as she tries to discover the identity of a malicious poison pen. Discussions about the place of women in society & the importance of the intellectual life are just as important as the detection.

The final book about Peter & Harriet, Busman's Honeymoon, started life as a play &, apart from the beginning of a novel, Thrones, Dominations (later finished by Jill Paton Walsh in 1998) & a few short stories written during WWII, that was the end of the story. McGregor & Lewis examine the reasons behind Sayers's decision to abandon this unfinished novel. Apart from having finally married off her two leading characters, Sayers was writing Thrones, Dominations during the period of the death of George V & the Abdication crisis of 1936. Suddenly the theme of marriage was just a little too delicate. Sayers was also becoming interested in other work, including her plays on religious themes & so the novel was put aside & never resumed.

Conundrums for the Long Week-end is a book for Wimsey fans who have read all the books as the plots are fully discussed & the murderers are named. You have been warned! I enjoyed it because of the way that the authors tied together the wider social history of the period with Sayers's life & the progress of her creation of two of the most intriguing characters in detective fiction.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas


Merry Christmas to everyone who visits I Prefer Reading. Thank you for dropping by & leaving comments. I'll be thinking about my Books of the Year over the next few days, posting my lists & enjoying reading everyone else's. I'll also have another list of the books I didn't quite get to in 2012. I'll probably also make my usual New Year's Resolution to stop buying books for a while & read the hundreds I already have.


I hope you all have a lovely, peaceful day. After lunch with my family, Lucky, Phoebe & I will be settling down to watch Scrooge with Alistair Sim or maybe A Christmas Carol with Michael Hordern or Patrick Stewart or George C Scott... It's not an easy decision to make. I failed to get a photo of the girls lolling around the Christmas tree so here's my favourite pictures of them both (separately, of course) as they wish you all a Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Linda Gillard's The Glass Guardian now available in paperback


One of my Favourite Books of 2012, Linda Gillard's The Glass Guardian, is now available in paperback from Amazon. I loved Linda's book & I'm very excited to be quoted on the back cover of the paperback.

The Glass Guardian is available for £7.99 from Amazon UK & $10.99 from Amazon US so everyone who was tempted by the many positive reviews but didn't have an e-reader can now buy themselves the perfect New Year's present.

Here's my review,

The Glass Guardian is a very difficult book to review. It's almost impossible to review it without spoilers. The author herself admits this so I'm not just trying to avoid writing a review! I could just say "I loved it, trust me, it's unputdownable." but that would make for a very short post. I think I summarised the book pretty well in my teaser on Monday, the story is about love, loss, grief, music, WWI, Skye, family secrets, loneliness & a ghost who will break your heart.

Ruth has suffered more grief in a very short time than anyone should have to bear. She's lost her lover, her father & her aunt. Her Aunt Janet's death has hit her hard. Janet virtually brought Ruth up after her mother's death & the time she spent at Janet's house, Tigh na Linne, on Skye, represents Ruth's happiest memories. Ruth inherits the house & travels to Skye to decide what to do with her life. Her career as a television gardener has come to an end. Maybe Skye represents a new beginning?

Ruth begins working on the garden & looking through Janet's archive. She was a well-known composer & a Canadian musicologist, Athelstan Blake, wants to write her biography. Ruth's discoveries cause some concern. The manuscript of Janet's most famous work, In Memoriam, based on a poem by Andrew Marvell, is in three different hands. In Memoriam is very different from Janet's work before & after. Could she have appropriated someone else's work?

Ruth also finds a childhood friend still living on Skye. Tom & his mother had spent summer holidays in a rented house near Tigh na Linne & now, after his mother's death, Tom has returned, working as a general gardener & handyman. Ruth feels an immediate attraction to Tom & as he begins to help her get the house ready for a possible sale, Ruth begins to realise that a childhood friendship may not necessarily be the best basis for a relationship with a man she doesn't really know.

Ruth gradually realises that she's not alone at Tigh na Linne. The house is haunted & the ghost is not entirely a stranger to her. As winter envelops the house & Ruth's loneliness & confusion increase, it becomes apparent that her future is intimately entwined with her family's past & her passion for a man who died one hundred years ago.

Atmosphere is so very important in any supernatural story. Linda Gillard has created a completely believable world in The Glass Guardian that spans the real & the unreal, the past & the present. The best ghost stories take place in winter, illuminated by cosy fires & flickering candlelight. Skye is the perfect setting, the bare wintry landscape mirroring Ruth's despair & grief when she first arrives at Tigh na Linne. Ruth is a vulnerable & very believable character. She has few warm memories & all of them are bound up with Skye & her Aunt Janet. Her determination to discover all she can about Janet's life & the earlier family history is a fascinating part of the story.

I can't say too much about the romantic hero of the book as it would spoil the story. I'll just say that if you've loved the heroes of Linda's earlier books, you won't be disappointed. The love story is tender & romantic but tinged with the grief & regrets of an earlier age. If you don't know Linda's books, what are you waiting for?! Click on the link to my teaser post above, & you'll find links to my reviews of Linda's books & to her website.

As usual with Linda's novels, I read The Glass Guardian in almost one sitting, I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. I was completely caught up in Ruth's journey. If you enjoy a love story with atmosphere, intelligent, multi-faceted characters & a touch of the supernatural, I think you'll enjoy The Glass Guardian.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

Past Three A Clock (picture from here) is another of my favourite Christmas carols. Although it sounds ancient, only the refrain & the tune is old. It was a waits song from the seventeenth century when men would call the hours in the streets. The carol is a 20th century composition by George Ratcliffe Wood. In the recordings I've heard, it's always sung by a male choir & the refrain is very addictive. It gets into my head & I find I'm humming it, walking, chopping or typing in time with it. I love the English homeliness of the words. Bringing cheese, butter & honey for Mary & the hinds searching for Jesus over the dewy lawn. If you don't know it, there's a performance here by Kings College Choir.

        Past three a clock,
        And a cold frosty morning,
        Past three a clock;
        Good morrow, masters all!

Born is a Baby,
Gentle as may be,
Son of the eternal
Father supernal.

        Refrain.
        Past three a clock,
        And a cold frosty morning,
        Past three a clock;
        Good morrow, masters all!

Seraph quire singeth,
Angel bell ringeth;
Hark how they rime it,
Time it and chime it. Refrain.

Mid earth rejoices
Hearing such voices
e'ertofore so well
Carolling Nowell. Refrain.

Hinds o'er the pearly,
Dewy lawn early
Seek the high Stranger
Laid in the manger. Refrain.

Cheese from the dairy
Bring they for Mary
And, not for money,
Butter and honey. Refrain.

Light out of star-land
Leadeth from far land
Princes, to meet him,
Worship and greet him. Refrain.

Myrrh from full coffer,
Incense they offer;
Nor is the golden
Nugget withholden. Refrain

Thus they: I pray you,
Up, sirs, nor stay you
Till ye confess him
Likewise and bless him. Refrain.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Question of Identity - Susan Hill

Is it sacrilegious to admit that I don't read Susan Hill's Simon Serailler novels for the murder plots anymore? Maybe it's because Hill has a long & distinguished career as a novelist rather than a genre novelist that I find the atmosphere of the cathedral city of Lafferton & especially the family dynamics of Simon & his family so much more absorbing than the mystery & the investigation.

In the latest novel, A Question of Identity, I may have lost interest in the murder plot because I felt I knew who the murderer was from very early on & for once, I was right. One of the characters just never rang true from the moment they were introduced & I just knew that I'd found the murderer. I'd read Audrey's post at Books as Food & I can see that Audrey feels as I do. The family relationships have become more compelling. I don't see this as a reason to stop reading the series. After all, Simon is a policeman. If he abandoned his job & concentrated on his art, the books wouldn't be nearly as interesting. But then, I'm afraid I find Simon the least interesting member of the Serrailler family. I loved the early books when his mother was alive & I find the female characters so much more interesting than Simon & his tentative, tortured relationships.

I suppose I should mention the detective plot at some point though. Elderly women living in sheltered accommodation are being murdered. The murderer has no trouble entering the houses, he doesn't sexually assault his victims or steal anything. He arranges the women in a chair facing a mirror & strangles them. Eventually a link is made to a similar series of murders that took place some years earlier. The novel opens with the court case that led to the acquittal of the suspect in these murders. Alan Keyes disappeared after the trial & was never heard of again. Police were sure he was guilty but his defence lawyers had been able to throw doubt on an eyewitness's testimony. Once the connection is made to this earlier case, Serrailler & his team are chasing a phantom. Keyes has been given a new identity & they have few clues to go on & get no help from the authorities. They set up an elaborate sting that helps them to find the killer.

While all this is going on, life in the Serrailler family is as complicated as ever. Simon is in love with Rachel, who loves him in return but isn't free. Her husband is dying &, although he has given their relationship his blessing, she feels the guilt & strain of the situation. Simon's sister, Cat, is struggling to cope as a single parent after the death of her husband. Her teenage son, Sam, is uncommunicative & silent. Her daughter, Hannah, is excited about the possibility of acting in a film. Molly, a medical student who lives with the family & helps with the children, is struggling to cope with the events of the last book, The Betrayal of Trust, when her life was at risk. Cat is also concerned about the future of her work as a doctor at a local hospice. The financial future of the hospice is in doubt & Cat feels undermined by the Board as she tries to ensure that its valuable work can continue.

Simon & Cat's father, Richard, has always been a taciturn, difficult man. His second wife, Judith, has made a difference to all their lives &, after some initial resentment, Simon has grown to love her. Richard & Judith's relationship appears very rocky & Judith's refusal to confide in Cat is another source of concern.

All this family drama is fascinating & it's what kept me reading the novel. I'll look forward to Susan Hill's next Simon Serrailler novel for the continuation of the Serrailler family saga above all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Pinecone - Jenny Uglow

Jenny Uglow is one of my favourite writers of non-fiction. She has a quiet, calm style that conjures up the world of her subjects. Her new book, The Pinecone, is the story of Sarah Losh, a woman of independent fortune who was an architect in an age when a woman was expected to be dedicated to hearth & home.

The Losh family made their fortune in industry. Sarah's father, John, owned a factory making alkali to use in glass making. He & his partners discovered how to make alkali at a competitive price compared to European sources. This was the foundation of the wealth that allowed Sarah to follow her own course in an age when the traditional path of a young woman in the early 19th century involved marriage & family.

Sarah's family lived in Wreay, near Carlisle in Cumbria. They were a politically radical family, acquainted with Wordsworth & Coleridge, religious dissenters with a strong social conscience. Sarah & her sister, Katharine, were very close. Neither married, although they spent their youth attending balls & receptions. Their brother, Joseph, was mentally disabled & so their father left his estate to his daughters equally. Sarah & Katherine were unusual because they were completely contented in each others company. Sarah loved reading & study & was an antiquarian with an intense interest in the past. The sisters travelled in Europe & Sarah was fascinated by the buildings of Italy & France, storing up ideas for her future work.

They both took an interest in their estate workers & the local village. They played the role of Lady Bountiful but there was a real concern & genuine kindness in all they did. Theirs was a benevolent rule. When the local churchyard was full they gave an acre of their land as a cemetery for their own village, regardless of religious denomination. Sarah designed the chapel that was built there, adapting the plan of St Piran's oratory, a Cornish chapel that had recently been uncovered by archaeologists.This awareness & passion for the past informed all Sarah's building projects. She was also passionate about using local craftsmen & materials.

Sarah's next project was much more sombre. Katharine died in 1835 & Sarah was overcome with grief. She designed a strange boxlike mausoleum, a place of quiet reflection. It's described as both a refuge & a cell & was described at the time as having Druidic influences. The statue on the cover of the book sits in the mausoleum. It shows Katharine looking down at a pinecone on her lap. The pinecone is one of the central motifs of Sarah's work. I had no idea of the complex symbolism of this object. It's an ancient symbol of regeneration & fertility. It was also an expression of the Fibonacci sequence, a mathematical pattern that describes the way the bracts of the pinecone are laid out. It's found everywhere in nature from the pattern on a snail's shell to the structure of DNA. Sarah was a mathematician & was fascinated by patterns & symbols.

The building for which Sarah is now remembered is the extraordinary church she built at Wreay. The church is the embodiment of all her reading on early church architecture & religious history. It was also informed by the controversies in the Church of her own day. The Oxford Movement was endeavouring to bring the Church of England closer to its historical roots & antiquarians were rediscovering the beauties of Norman & Romanesque architecture. Sarah's design didn't copy any particular style, it was her own.

Like a geologist demonstrating the strata of belief, she decorated the church with symbols that looked back to the earlier religions, myths and cults that lay buried beneath Christian imagery and ritual, as the wheat of Demeter and the grapes of Dionysus lay behind the bread and wine of the sacrament.

She used the lotus, an early symbol of creation used by the Egyptians. There were cockerels, snakes & the tortoise, all symbols of Hindu stories & classical myth. And there were pinecones, a symbol that was used in ancient Assyria, Babylon, Egypt & Greece. Early visitors to the church were probably most surprised by the lack of Christian imagery. The building itself was simple but the interior decoration was very much Sarah's vision & completely individual.

The design & building of Sarah's church is the heart of the book but there is so much else. The coming of the railways, the stories of Sarah's wider family & their adventures in India & during the Afghan Wars. Above all, it's the story of a remarkable woman who made the most of her opportunities to live a truly individual life. Sarah Losh lived her life in her own way & has left behind her church, a unique expression of her character. When she died in 1853, she was mourned by many. Trees were planted in her honour by the local weavers she'd helped in hard times & by the villagers who had benefited from her care.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Christmas

Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel is one of my favourite carols. I listen to Christmas carols for weeks before Christmas, I've always loved them, especially the older, medieval ones. This one always makes me think of angels (picture from here). The words are joyous but the tune is melancholy. I don't know all the words, but I just hum along & join in loudly on Rejoice! Rejoice! Whether it's in English or Latin, this is one of the tunes that stays in the mind long after the CD is back in its case.

Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Wisdom from on high,
Who ordered all things mightily;
To us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, oh, come, our Lord of might,
Who to your tribes on Sinai's height
In ancient times gave holy law,
In cloud and majesty and awe.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come O Rod of Jesse's stem,
From ev'ry foe deliver them
That trust your mighty pow'r to save;
Bring them in vict'ry through the grave.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav'nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

More than Love Letters - Rosy Thornton

This is Rosy Thornton's first novel, published in 2006, & it has all the humour & romance that make her novels so much fun to read. More than Love Letters is an epistolary novel, quite an unusual choice for a first novel in the 21st century. As well as letters, there are emails, newspaper articles, minutes of the meetings of WITCH (Women of Ipswich Together Combating Homelessness) & extracts from Hansard.

The main correspondence is between Margaret Hayton, a 24 year old teacher & her MP, Richard Slater. Margaret writes to Richard about the VAT on sanitary towels, the missing zipwire at the local playground & the lack of bins for dog waste at the local park. Richard thinks she's a pest, an old woman with a fixation on dog faeces, & sends her form letters in reply. Richard is a discontented MP, out of favour because of his opposition to the Iraq War, & desperate to find some way back into the Leader's good books. His friend & fellow MP, Michael Carragan, is on hand to offer advice & a drink. Michael advises Richard to get himself in the news on an important issue. Once Richard meets Margaret at a Constituency surgery though, he suddenly decides that the tax on sanitary towels is the most important issue of the moment.

Margaret is a passionate & socially minded young woman. She's just moved to Ipswich where she lodges with Cora whose husband works on an oil rig. Margaret immediately gets involved in WITCH, a collective running a women's refuge. She writes long emails to her best friend Becs, a teacher in the North who's working her way through the alphabet looking for the perfect man. Margaret also writes long letters to her Gran, who's recovering from a stroke & has trouble getting to the phone in time. Through Margaret's letters we meet the other members of WITCH. Alison, super-organised & competent; Pat & Pat, a lesbian couple who hope to be able to marry; Susan, Ding & Persephone. The women at the refuge are escaping from violent husbands & abusive fathers & the collective support the residents as well as previous residents who still need their help.

Margaret & Richard's relationship begins with misconceptions & continues with some comic misunderstandings as well as many moments of real connection. Richard is immediately attracted to Margaret when they meet but she believes that his sudden interest in dog litter bins & children's playground equipment is a sign that he has a social conscience. Their correspondence with each other remains on a businesslike level while Margaret's emails to Becs & Richard's to Michael tell a more romantic story. Richard agrees to help Nasreen, an Albanian refugee seeking asylum who's staying at the refuge, & this is when his self-serving attempts to impress Margaret become more serious & he stops playing at being an MP & starts taking his job seriously. When Nasreen disappears, Margaret & Richard are drawn together in the search for her.

There are parallels with Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, North & South, in More than Love Letters. Margaret shares the heroine's name & she's also the daughter of a vicar. Both Margarets have a social conscience & they have an influence on the social consciences of the men they love. Gaskell's novel is mentioned several times & Margaret is a lover of 19th century fiction, a love she shares with her grandmother. The warm, loving relationship between Margaret & her grandmother is very touching. Gran gives Margaret all the love that seems to be missing from her relationship with her parents, too busy with parish concerns.

Margaret's kindness touches everyone, from her landlady, Cora, who plants a garden for the women's refuge & starts taking herbalism courses, to Helen, a young woman at the refuge who relies on Margaret for support. There are tragedies as well as humour in the book & the story is involving from the beginning. More than Love Letters is a romantic story with a serious undercurrent. A Condition of England novel for the 21st century as the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell were in the 19th.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Christmas short stories by Trisha Ashley, Katie Fforde & Elly Griffiths

I love reading books about Christmas at this time of year. This year, I have three treats to read in a spare moment with a cup of coffee as three of my favourite contemporary writers have published short stories on a Christmas theme - & two of them are free.

Katie Fforde's story, Staying Away at Christmas, is available as a digital-only story from Amazon. So, you'll need a Kindle or Kindle app to read it. It costs $1.52US & includes the first chapter of her forthcoming book, A French Affair. Miranda is a single mother setting off to spend Christmas in Devon with her two daughters. Miranda is taking stroppy teenager Isa & young Lulu to the holiday cottage they'd loved in summer but will it have the same charm in the middle of winter? When they arrive, they discover that widower Anthony & his two children, Dan & Amy, have also arrived for Christmas thinking that they had booked the cottage.  Anthony is aggressive & prickly & Miranda is anxious enough about Christmas without dealing with these complete strangers. Will Christmas be a disaster or a delight?

Trisha Ashley & Elly Griffiths have given their fans a Christmas present with a free short story available through their websites. Both are PDF documents so you can read them online, print them off or download them to your e-reader (I did this with Calibre).

Trisha's story is called A Christmas Wish & it's available here. A young Chloe Lyon from Trisha's novel Christmas Wishes sees an angel. Trisha also includes some yummy Christmas recipes from her books as well as a few new ones.

Elly's story, Ruth's First Christmas Tree, is available through the Quercus website. Just register here & you'll be sent a link to the story. Ruth is determined that her daughter Kate will have a proper, traditional Christmas, including a Christmas tree. Her plans don't quite work out but thanks to Cathbad & Nelson, Kate & Ruth have a Christmas to remember. I'm looking forward to reading Elly's new novel, A Dying Fall, when it's published early in the New Year.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

Christmas is almost upon us so my last poem by Thomas Hardy has a Christmas theme. It's not his best known Christmas poem, The Oxen, but one I hadn't read before I discovered it in my Selected Poems this week. In Yuletide in a Younger World, the speaker is looking back, with a melancholy eye, to Christmases past & remembering the wonder that Christmas used to bring.

We believed in highdays then,
And could glimpse at night
On Christmas Eve
Imminent oncomings of radiant revel - 
Doings of delight:-
Now we have no such sight.

We had eyes for phantoms then,
And at bridge or stile
On Christmas Eve
Clear beheld those countless ones who had crossed it
Cross again in file:-
Such has ceased longwhile!

We liked divination then,
and, as they homeward wound
On Christmas Eve,
We could read men's dreams within them spinning
Even as wheels spin round:-
Now we are blinker-bound.

We heard still small voices then,
And, in the dim serene
Of Christmas Eve,
Caught the fartime tones of fire-filled prophets
Long on earth unseen....
-Can such ever have been?

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Millions Like Us - Virginia Nicholson

The subtitle of this book is Women's Lives in War and Peace & that's exactly what it encompasses. Millions Like Us tells the stories of many women & how they lived through WWII & the years afterwards. Nicholson focuses on about a dozen women who we get to know well during the course of the book, including writer Naomi Mitchison, housewife & diarist Nella Last, 17 year old junior housemaid Jean McFadyen & debutante Patience Chadwyck-Healey. Their lives are revealed through interviews, letters & diaries as well as memoirs they wrote in later life.

The women worked in all the armed forces as ambulance drivers, nurses, clerks, telegraph operators & code breakers at Bletchley Park, at home & in all the theatres of war. There are women trying to run a home during the Blitz, helping others bombed out of their homes, working in the Land Army or Timber Corps or looking after evacuees. It would be impossible to tell even a fraction of the stories told so well in Millions Like Us & the voices of the women in the book are so important that I think it's better to let the women speak for themselves. These are just a few of the passages I marked as I read.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote a weekly column in the New Yorker about the experiences of Britain at War. The imposition of the blackout & the closure of theatres was one of the first effects,

With, on the whole, astounding good humor and an obedience remarkable in an effete democracy, they have accepted a new troglodyte existence in which there are few places of entertainment, no good radio programs, little war news and little to do after dark except stay in the cave...'So we'll go no more a-roving so late into the night' has taken on a significance that Byron never intended.

Young women like 17 year old Cora Styles became quite matter of fact about the horrors of the Blitz,

When I went to work in the mornings you'd see piles of brick rubble, perhaps with an arm sticking out or a leg - I got so that blood, guts and what have you didn't have much effect on me. I knew a man who would go round with a  basket collecting the bits, trying to put them together. He picked up somebody's head and the eyes were open; it nearly landed him in the loony bin.

Not all the stories are as horrific. For many women, the war was an opportunity to get out of the rut that habit or class or their families had thrust them into. They were able to get an education, learn new skills & experience the excitement that responsibility & doing a worthwhile job can bring. For all the stories about young women being bullied in factories or forced to put up with the dirtiest jobs an irate farmer could devise, there are other stories about friendships & romances that changed their lives.

Isa Barker was a Land Girl in Scotland & found the social life & staging charity concerts more stimulating than the work,

We found out that we had a couple of beautiful singers; and there was one girl who was very adept with poetry recitations, and could make people laugh. And I had been in a tap dancing troupe for five or six years when I was younger... We didn't go to bed till about two in the morning because of people enjoying themselves. And on Saturday mornings you'd get up and think 'Och, we've got to lift manure.' Well, we could hardly lift the fork, never mind the fork with the manure on it!

The end of the war brought joy & relief. Marguerite Patten had been a domestic science demonstrator during the war & went on to become a well-known cookery writer. She remembers her joy when the war ended.

Victory! We couldn't, couldn't believe it  really had come. It was wonderful... The sheer joyousness of that day! I kissed more people that day than I kissed in my entire life. We danced and we sang... and of course we all got as near to Buckingham Palace as we possibly could. You can't exaggerate the joy of that day. And we could go home in the dark and not worry about an air raid! And people could leave their curtains undrawn!~No, the feeling of joy on that day was something to remember the whole of your life.

The end of the war didn't bring joy to everyone. It was hard to celebrate when your husband or son wasn't coming home. When the troops were demobilised & the prisoners of war were released, the men who came home had changed & the women they came back to had changed as well. Many marriages foundered & divorce rates increased. Many young women had become engaged to American GIs & set off to a whole new life in another country. Others had to leave jobs that they had enjoyed because the work was no longer there or the job was reserved for a returned serviceman.

The stress of adjustment to peace was severe. Especially as life didn't automatically change for the better. Rationing didn't end with the war & shortages of food, clothing, housing all made life difficult without the feeling of necessary sacrifice that came with the war effort. The final chapters of Millions Like Us are quite sober. News of the concentration camps & the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan shocked everyone. The new post-war world would take some getting used to. Millions Like Us is an absorbing book. Virginia Nicholson has done an excellent job of describing the war experiences of so many different women yet by the end of the book, the reader feels that we know them all intimately. The personal interviews are especially important as the generation who lived through WWII begins to disappear. It's all the more crucial that their experiences are not forgotten.


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Overflowing with blessings

What to read next? So many lovely books have come into the house in recent weeks that I'm having a hard time deciding what to read first. I spent last weekend reading Millions Like Us by Virginia Nicholson, one of the books I didn't get to last year & wanted to read before the end of this year. I loved it & I'll be reviewing it soon. Another of the books on that list was Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester but after reading Captive Reader's review, I'm not sure I'm in the mood when there are so many other books clamouring for my attention. My copies of the beautiful Virago reprints of High Rising & Wild Strawberries have arrived.

Then, there's this pile of new books from the library. The Pinecone by Jenny Uglow, about Sarah Losh, a remarkable woman who was an antiquarian & architect in a period when a woman wasn't supposed to be either. These Wonderful Rumours! by May Smith, the diary of a schoolteacher during WWII. Serving Victoria by Kate Hubbard, life with Queen Victoria by members of her household including doctors & ladies-in-waiting. Thomas Wyatt : the Heart's Forest by Susan Brigden. Wyatt is one of my favourite poets & I'm interested in Brigden's interpretation of his melancholy life. A Question of Identity by Susan Hill is the new Simon Serrailler mystery. I always look forward to this series & I can't wait to see how Simon deals with his new love affair. The Sea Garden by Marcia Willett. One of my most anticipated comfort reads each year is a new novel by Marcia Willett. Set in Devon or Cornwall, her books are always full of atmosphere & family drama. The Fishing Fleet by Anne De Courcy, about the young women who went out toi India in search of husbands in the days of the Raj. Lifting the Lid by Claire Macdonald is the story of the author's life at Kinloch Lodge on Skye. Macdonald may be better known in the UK but I hadn't heard of her. The book is the story of how she & her husband created the Kinloch Lodge Hotel, brought up their family & became a well-known cookery writer.

I've known about Girls Gone By, the publisher specializing in reprinting classic girls school stories, for ages but hadn't bought anything until recently. I didn't read school stories (except Enid Blyton's Naughtiest Girl series) or books about pony-mad little girls when I was a child so I'm not interested in reading them now. However, I discovered these books on their list about young women & couldn't resist buying them. Margaret Finds a Future by Mabel Esther Allan, The Bartle Bequest by Dorita Fairlie Bruce & The Scholarship Girl at Cambridge by Josephine Elder.

The new edition of Brontë Studies will be arriving any day now &, having seen the Table of Contents & noticing that many of the articles are about Anne's Agnes Grey & Charlotte's The Professor, I feel that I should reread both before I read the articles to refresh my memory. It's been years since I read either of them.

I've also been tempted by Dani's plan to read Fanny Burney's Camilla & I've decided to read along. I've downloaded the free copy from Girlebooks but I've also borrowed the OUP edition from work so I can read the notes.

My next book should probably be one of the library books as I know I can't renew some of them. It's a difficult decision & I think a cup of tea & some soothing music (I'm listening to lots of Christmas carols & choirs at the moment) will be needed to help me get there.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

This is a late poem by Hardy, written in 1927. The speaker is looking back to a time when he still had the energy to climb a hill to look at the moon rise. It's melancholy but with a touch of humour at the disadvantages of age.

We used to go to Froom-hill Barrow,
To see the round moon rise
Into the heath-rimmed skies,
Trudging thither by plough and harrow
Up the pathway, steep and narrow,
Singing a song.
Now we do not go there. Why?
Zest burns not so high!

Latterly we've only conned her
With a passing glance
From window or door by chance,
Hoping to go again, high yonder,
As we used, and gaze, and ponder,
Singing a song.
Thitherward we do not go:
Feet once quick are slow!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Nurse at the Front - Edith Appleton

I usually read something connected with WWI around November & this year, it's been the diaries of WWI nurse, Edith Appleton. Her diaries have been transcribed by her great-niece & nephews & were originally available on this fascinating website. As well as the diaries, the family have included a brief biography of Edie, letters from & about her & a complete index of everyone mentioned in the diaries. More information about Edie, her colleagues & the men she nursed is being unearthed thanks to the website & the wonders of the internet. An edition of the diaries has now been published by the Imperial War Museum, edited by Ruth Cowan.

Edie was born in Kent in 1877 & by the time war broke out in 1914 had been nursing for over 10 years. She volunteered for Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service & spent the next five years nursing in France & Flanders. She kept a diary throughout her war service but, unfortunately, not all of it has survived. Hopefully they may still turn up somewhere. The diaries we do have begin in April 1915 & there's another long gap between November 1916 & June 1918. However, what we do have gives a fascinating picture of wartime nursing on the Western Front & a portrait of the dedication & courage of Edie & all the other medical staff who witnessed the horrors of war.

I've often wondered how nurses managed to keep going day after day as they saw endless convoys of wounded & dying men & struggled to help them. In Edie's case, I believe it was her love of nature & her determination to take advantage of any opportunity of getting away from the hospital in her precious time off. Wherever Edie is stationed, she swims, walks or goes for long drives alone or with her colleagues. she's interested in everything & everyone she meets.

Maxey, Truslove & I had a half day, so we walked to Bénouville in the rain and picked primroses that were hanging from the banks in yellow tufts. At Bénouville, we peeped into the church and found service in progress - so went to the café for tea of bloaters, boiled eggs, toast and tea. After tea the old woman showed us her old china and pewter. Such a nice little woman - her husband is away at the war and she was busy making herself a coat out of an old one of his. She turned the stuff and piped it with black velvet and made a strap for the waits and sleeves - very smart. March 20, 1916.

Much of Edie's work consisted of organization, routine & hard graft. She worked in Casualty Clearing Stations, mobile units that operated close to the Front & ministered to men who were brought by ambulance direct from the battlefield. Many were dead or dying by the time they arrived. They were all dirty, in pain & often in shock. Conditions & equipment were basic & often the men were on stretchers on the floor. The work could be dangerous too as troop movements were often sudden & the CCS could be ordered to move very quickly, taking wounded men with them. At other times, they were shelled by the enemy but kept working through the bombardment. Several times, staff were injured by shells & shrapnel. Once the emergency treatment was given, the men were put on convoys & sent by train and boat back to England.

Edie never knew from one day to the next how many convoys might arrive. Sometimes they were prepared for a great influx of wounded & nobody came. Other times, the wards were overflowing & the staff worked 20 hour shifts to tend to them all. If any nurses were off sick, everyone else just worked harder & longer. Sometimes it's not the demands of the war but of politics & PR that determined the workload.

We should have been taking in today, but after getting only a few ambulance-loads we were stopped - instead No 2 was taking in. This afternoon I heard why - the King is coming on Wednesday and will be taken to No 2 as it is the senior casualty clearance station here and they want to have plenty of patients in when he comes. October 25, 1915

Apart from Royal visits, the work went on. In 1918, Edie was transferred to no 3 General Hospital at Le Tréport. The hospital was in a large hotel on the coast so no more tents but the work was just as dispiriting at times.

My ward is rather a sad place just now - so full of extremely badly wounded. There is plenty of gas-gangrene and two fractured spines dying in a room which is difficult to ventilate. One feels the horrible smell in one's throat and nose all the time. Poor old things! One died yesterday - an Australian. His leg was very gangrenous and had to be taken off high up, but it was too far gone. His constant cry was to get up and go out - that he was quite all right - then about half an hour before he died he settled down and said 'I'm done. I'm dying fast.' And he was quite right. August 16, 1918

After the war, Edie was demobbed in 1919. She returned to nursing in England for a time. She & her sister bought a house on the Isle of Wight where they kept chickens & grew vegetables. Several of their siblings made their home with them. Edie married when she was 49. Her husband, Jack, was her sister's stepson & 10 years her junior. He died after only 10 years of marriage & Edie died at the age of 80 in 1958.

Edie's diary is an invaluable record of nursing in WWI. Her good humour, efficiency & dedication must have made her a valuable part of the team at all her postings. I've just finished reading Virginia Nicholson's book about women in WWII, Millions Like Us. Virginia Nicholson notes that almost all the women she interviewed, when asked why they had joined up or how they coped with the privations of war, said "We just got on with it." I think Edie's response would have been the same. She was trained to do an important job & she did it magnificently. How lucky we are to be able to read her diaries & honour her memory.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blood Never Dies - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Bill Slider is one of my favourite fictional detectives so I was pleased to see Blood Never Dies arrive on my desk. As always, Slider is aided by his team, Jim Atherton, Norma Swilley, Colin Hollis & cheery pathologist Freddie Cameron. He's also helped by his boss, malaprop-prone D S Porson, whose tangled aphorisms always make me smile. We also catch up with Bill's wife, Joanna, who's facing a dilemma when she's offered a new job, his father, & young son, George.

This book has the most elaborate plot I've come across in a crime novel for some time. Slider is called out to a case of suicide when Hollis thinks that something is not quite right. Slider agrees as the dead man left no note & all his personal possessions seem to be missing. The method was also unusual. The man's throat had been cut but the angle is wrong & the direction, especially when they discover that he was left-handed. He was living in a dingy room whose dodgy landlord wasn't too fussy about his tenants as long as they paid the rent so no help there.

Slider's first task is to identify the body. His suspicions are roused when he discovers that the man  called himself Robin Williams & Mike Hordern. By the time he discovers another pseudonym, Colin Redgrave, he knows there's more to this death than he first thought. Once he discovers the real name of the victim & begins to understand what he was doing in the last months of his life, the case becomes more complex & confusing. Then, other deaths that looked like suicide or accident start to connect with the first one & the implications of the case start to encompass other parts of the police force. Bill has to solve the case quickly or risk losing control of it altogether.

Blood Never Dies is an excellent example of a police procedural that's more than just a puzzle to be solved. The plot is complicated & I had no hope of working out what was going on & that's just how I like it. A good mystery has me reading so fast that I don't have time to stop & try to work things out. Slider & his team solve the case using old-fashioned legwork & a little intuition. The interplay between the coppers is amusingly snappy but Bill is such a decent man that the focus is always on the victim & solving the case. This is a perfect book for anyone who enjoys a traditional murder mystery & if you like it, there are 14 earlier books to track down.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

When I set out for Lyonnesse was written in 1870 & it has the feeling of a ballad of olden times. Hardy's county of Wessex used the geography of southern England but he replaced a lot of the actual place names with imaginary ones. Lyonnesse is his name for the Isles of Scilly. This is a more optimistic poem than last week's choice and although we don't know what happened to the speaker on his visit to Lyonnesse, it obviously made him very happy.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes! 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Linda Gillard's House of Silence now available as a paperback

One of my Top 10 books of last year, Linda Gillard's House of Silence, has just been released as a paperback, available from Amazon. Linda has been very successful as both a traditionally published writer & an indie author. Over the past year her e-books, House of Silence, Untying the Knot & The Glass Guardian, have sold thousands of copies. Linda's success just goes to show that the major publishers don't always know what will sell. Linda's commitment to writing the books she wanted to write & then getting out there & selling them, helped along by fantastic word of mouth & positive reviews, has been well-rewarded. Now, for all those readers who have been longing to read Linda's books but didn't have a Kindle, the first of Linda's e-books is now available in paperback. The story of how Linda published House of Silence herself as an e-book is here. And here's my review of House of Silence,

Gwen Rowland is an independent, self-contained young woman in her mid twenties. Christened Guinevere by her drug-addicted mother because she was conceived at Glastonbury, Gwen’s life has deliberately taken the opposite track to that of her mother, aunts & uncles, all now dead from drink, drugs & misadventure. Gwen studied art, fell in love with textiles & works as a wardrobe assistant on film & TV sets. While working on a Regency drama, she meets Alfie Donovan, an actor who seems strangely familiar. Alfie’s childhood has been just as dysfunctional as Gwen’s. His mother, Rae Holbrooke, is the author of the wildly successful series of children’s books, Tom Dickon Harry. Alfie had been the inspiration for the boy in the books, a much-loved son after the birth of four daughters. A documentary on his mother’s work when he was young had just augmented the legend & led to a distance, both emotional & physical, between Alfie & his family. He only goes home, reluctantly, for Christmas.

Alfie & Gwen’s friendship becomes a relationship &, when Gwen asks if they’ll spend Christmas together, Alfie reluctantly invites her to his family home, Creake Hall. Gwen is entranced by Creake Hall, an Elizabethan mansion kept going by Viv & Hattie, Alfie’s two sisters who still live at home. They care for their mother, Rae, who has had a breakdown & now rarely leaves her room. Viv is in her fifties, works hard in the house & the garden. She seems to have no inner life at all, never having had a relationship of her own. Hattie has also been damaged by her past. She’s a little fey, a little fragile, but she is a wonderful seamstress & makes gorgeous quilts, using vintage fabrics from the trunks & wardrobes of Creake Hall. This forms a bond between Gwen & Hattie when they meet. Viv tries to explain this odd family to Gwen,

Well, I think all you really need to know about us as a family, Gwen, is that we’re... fragmented. We aren’t close. Never have been, never will be. Oh, I’m fond of Hattie, but she’s only a half-sister and I’m old enough to be her mother. Ours is a strange relationship... We’re an odd bunch of siblings altogether! The only thing we have in common is Rae. Our ambivalence towards her. And our concern for her... Alfie comes to see her once a year and we’re all very grateful to him for that. It keeps Rae going. He’s her obsession now – has been since the last breakdown. He’s her precious son. But she was never a mother to him. Never a proper mother to any of us, if truth be told.

Gwen becomes uneasy when she starts to realise that Alfie hasn’t told her the truth about his background. She notices things. The photo of a boy playing cricket left-handed when Alfie is right-handed. The scraps of letters she finds in Hattie’s scraps bag that Alfie supposedly wrote home from school. The details don’t add up & Alfie’s story becomes just one of the secrets hidden in the past of this family & this house.

Gwen’s life is also shaken by her meeting with Marek. Marek is working as the Holbrooke’s gardener. He’s known as Tyler because Rae always calls the gardener Tyler, just as the dogs are always Harris & Lewis, although the original Harris & Lewis died years before. Gwen is immediately attracted to Marek, a man with secrets of his own. Half-Polish, half-Scottish, Marek practiced as a psychiatrist until five years ago when he left his profession & became a gardener. Marek is strong, sensitive & he plays the cello like an angel. He’s also a good listener, the product of his former life as a therapist,

‘I’m not wise,’ he replied, ‘just a people-watcher. If you watch enough people and watch them carefully, patterns emerge. From those patterns you can glean a few truths about human behaviour. It’s not wisdom, just observation. So, no, it’s not exhausting, it’s fascinating. Sometimes satisfying. I don’t do it intentionally any more. In fact, my intention is not to do it, but it still happens. It’s who I am. What I am.’

Linda Gillard’s heroes are always gorgeous, sexy & irresistible. I’ve read all her novels & loved all her heroes but Marek is very special. He can even make old, grey pyjamas sexy. As Gwen & Marek fall into bed & begin to fall in love, Gwen realises that she has never really known Alfie at all. Gwen becomes the catalyst that exposes the lies & deceit at the heart of the Holbrooke family.

I think Linda Gillard is a wonderful writer of contemporary fiction. I’ve known Linda for several years now. We were both members of the same online reading group for a while & we’ve kept in touch via email ever since, so this is my disclaimer! House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter. The heroine is smart, independent & compassionate. The hero is, quite frankly, gorgeous. You would think that publishers would be falling over themselves to publish this book. Well, they’re not.

Linda Gillard has published three other novels. Emotional Geology & A Lifetime Burning were published by Transita & Star Gazing by Piatkus. All three novels are award winners (Star Gazing was shortlisted for the Romance Writers Association award for Best Romantic Novel in 2009) but Linda has been trying to get House of Silence published for over two years. So, Linda decided to take advantage of the move towards e-books & e-publish. 

House of Silence has just been released exclusively as an e-book for the Kindle through Amazon. The reasons for Linda’s decision to publish in this way will be revealed tomorrow in a special guest blog that Linda has written for I Prefer Reading. In the meantime, have a look at Linda’s website & at the Amazon US listing for House of Silence (if you're anywhere in the world except the UK). If you're in the UK, you can buy House of Silence at Amazon UK. If you have a Kindle or can read Kindle e-books on your e-reader or PC, please have a look at Linda's book on Amazon.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Suspicious Minds - Martin Edwards

Harry Devlin is a Liverpool lawyer who we first met in All the Lonely People. In that book, Harry's estranged wife, Liz, was murdered &, finding himself a suspect, he decides to do a little investigating of his own to discover the killer. In Suspicious Minds, Harry is still mourning Liz & still getting too involved in his clients' problems.

Jack Stirrup is a businessman who made a fortune in the wine business. His wife, Alison, has disappeared & the police suspect that Jack had something to do with it. Alison's mother, Doreen, has always hated Jack & she's pushing the police to arrest him even though there's no evidence to suggest that Alison is dead. Jack's daughter from his first marriage, Claire, is a sulky teenager who disliked her stepmother & is driving her father crazy with her relationship with law student Peter Kuiper. Jack disapproves of Kuiper but his disapproval only makes Claire more determined to pursue the relationship. Jack isn't short of enemies, including ex-employee Trevor Morgan, sacked for harassing the female staff.

Then there's the Beast. A series of attacks on young, blonde women has everyone worried. The attacks have escalated from indecent assault to rape. Has blonde Alison become the Beast's latest victim? Harry can't be sure that Jack wasn't involved in Alison's disappearance & he does what he can to find out where Alison is. But, when Claire goes missing & is then found murdered, her body surrounded by red roses, the case becomes much more complicated.

I'm so pleased that the Harry Devlin series is available again. Harry is a flawed but sympathetic character. The suspicious minds of the title include Harry himself as he tentatively pursues a relationship with barrister Valerie Kaiwar & finds himself unsure of her feelings & jealous of her close friendship with a colleague. Harry is a fair, honest lawyer who does his best for his clients but isn't always able to sort out his own life. There's a melancholy about Harry that's very appealing.

The Liverpool setting is gritty & I love the details of Harry's office life with incompetent & unhelpful staff & his calm, unflappable partner, Joe Crusoe. The pace is snappy & the plot is as tangled as any crime fan could wish. I also love the fact that the books are about 200 pages long. I'm not a fan of very long mystery novels. I think the ideal length for a mystery is 200-250 pages, probably because I enjoy reading the Golden Age novelists who rarely wrote long novels. Martin Edwards improves on a lot of the writers of that period though because he values character & place as much as plot & puzzle. I'm so pleased that I have five more novels in the series to read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues - Trisha Ashley

Tansy Poole lives in London with her fiance, Justin, but her heart lies in the village of Sticklepond with her great-aunt Nan who has been more of a mother to Tansy than her own mother had ever been. Tansy's relationship with Justin has become miserable. Tansy wants to get married & have children. Justin keeps putting off the wedding & wanting her to lose weight & dress more conservatively. Suddenly he wants to change the things that make Tansy who she really is. His mother is also a nightmare who spends far to much time in their flat tidying up & throwing away Tansy's belongings. Tansy writes & illustrates children's books but her heart's desire is to use her passion for shoes & weddings to make a living.

Aunt Nan has been running the family shoe shop in Sticklepond forever but now that her health is failing, Tansy spends more time with her & discovers that Nan is going to leave her the shop. Her plan to move to Sticklepond to be with Nan is made easier by her realisation that Justin isn't going to make a commitment & if she wants to have children, she needs to make some difficult decisions.

After Nan's death, Tansy & her best friend, Bella, open Cinderella's Shoes, a fantasy of a bridal shop specialising in vintage & over-the-top fairytale shoes for brides. The new shop is a lot of hard work & Tansy's equilibrium isn't helped by the discovery that her new next door neighbour is Ivo Hawksley, Shakespearian actor & her first love. Ivo has retreated to Sticklepond after the tragic death of his wife in an accident & he spends his time hacking away at the overgrown garden & playing mournful classical music in the evenings. He's also reading his wife's diaries which leads him to reassess their relationship & what he wants to do in the future.

Tansy & Ivo's combative relationship (he objects to her crowing cockerel, her dog attacking his cat & the doorbell of the shop playing Here Comes the Bride very loudly. She objects to his mournful music, his melodramatic habit of quoting Shakespeare every time they meet & the fact that he dumped her many years ago) gradually turns to friendship. Ivo takes Tansy's dog, Flash, for evening walks & she tries to encourage him to eat by pressing delicious food parcels on him. Justin, however, isn't taking his dismissal quietly & wants to move north to be closer to Tansy, much to her horror. Tansy's two stepsisters (just as horrible as Cinderella's) do all they can to disrupt her life & even Aunt Nan has a few surprises from beyond the grave. Add Bella's fraught relationship with her parents & budding romance with Neil & a proposal to build a retail park near the village that would threaten local businesses & you have a funny, romantic story that's a lovely way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Trisha Ashley's Sticklepond novels have an enthusiastic following & in Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues we meet several characters from the previous books, A Winter's Tale & Chocolate Wishes. I've also enjoyed her Christmas novels, The Twelve Days of Christmas & The Magic of Christmas. All Trisha's books have a fairytale flavour to them. The villagers of Sticklepond are an eccentric lot but they're a real community with shared values & a shared vision of the future of the village. Tansy, like many of Trisha's heroines is a wonderful cook & spends what little time she has left over from running the shop baking all sorts of goodies as well as brewing the mysterious Meddyg, a mead-like drink from a secret family recipe that can cure anything from melancholy to the plague. This is a delightful book full of humour, romance & food. What more could you ask for?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Those books I didn't get to in 2011.

Remember this post? At the end of last year I listed some of the books I bought last year that I was sure I would love if only I'd actually gotten around to reading them. The other day I thought I should have a look & see if I had managed to read any of them this year or whether they'd been overrun by the new arrivals. Surprisingly I didn't do too badly. Here's the list, with links to the posts about the books I read.

Helen - Maria Edgeworth
Patronage - Maria Edgeworth
Between the Acts - Virginia Woolf
Westwood by Stella Gibbons
Life Among the Savages - Shirley Jackson
No Surrender - Constance Maud
Millions Like Us - Virginia Nicholson
Georgette Heyer - Jennifer Kloester
Now All Roads Lead to France - Matthew Hollis

I read half of Life Among the Savages before throwing it (gently) aside. I know Simon loved it but I just didn't like the narrator's voice. Maybe it was the wrong day to read it. A very hot day at the beginning of the year when I didn't have much patience with anything so I may go back to it one day & try again.

Having read one Maria Edgeworth novel this year I'm not sure when I'll get to Patronage. The other three books have now left the tbr shelves & are sitting on the desk. I would love to read them all before the end of the year. Then I can write another post about this year's books that arrived in a glow of enthusiasm but didn't get any further than the tbr shelves.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

For the next few weeks I'll be featuring the poetry of Thomas Hardy in Sunday Poetry. He's always been one of my favourite authors of novels & poetry. I love that melancholy streak in his writing even though sometimes, as in Jude the Obscure, it becomes a little overwhelming. I'll never forget reading the crucial scene of despair in that novel (I won't describe it for fear of spoilers but if you've read the novel, you know the scene I mean, I'm sure). I was sitting on a train, coming home from university, on a gloomy, wet evening in the middle of winter. Maybe that was more appropriate than reading it on a gloriously sunny day but it was so overwhelmingly sad. Mostly I enjoy Hardy's realistic but grim view of human nature & the workings of Fate but Jude is such a sad book. I would like to reread it one day & see if I can find any optimism in it the second time around.

This week's poem is called He Fears His Good Fortune, which reminded me of Jude & of Hardy's whole outlook on life, really. It was published in his collection, Moments of Vision, in 1917.

There was a glorious time
At an epoch of my prime;
Mornings beryl-bespread,
And evenings golden-red;
Nothing gray:
And in my heart I said,
"However this chanced to be,
It is too full for me,
Too rare, too rapturous, rash,
Its spell must close with a crash
Some day!"

The radiance went on
Anon and yet anon,
And sweetness fell around
Like manna on the ground.
"I've no claim,"
Said I, "to be thus crowned:
I am not worthy this:-
Must it not go amiss? -
Well . . . let the end foreseen
Come duly!--I am serene."
--And it came.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

By the Book - Ramona Koval

What is the right moment to read a book? Is it when the book reflects the story of our own lives, so that we recognise the characters and what happens to them? Or is it before our own story takes the path of characters? Do we read to show us how to avoid the events within? Has a book read at the right time saved any of us from certain doom?

I think this quote sums up the way Ramona Koval reads & why she reads. I think it's probably true of everyone who can't imagine a life without books.

Ramona Koval is a well-respected & much-loved broadcaster & journalist. For many years she hosted Books & Writing, a weekly radio show about all aspects of literature. She has also interviewed hundreds of authors at writer's festivals from Melbourne to Edinburgh & Toronto. Unfortunately her radio career came to an abrupt end last year after some changes at the ABC but she has now written a book about her love of reading & the kinds of books she reads.

Koval grew up in Melbourne in the 50s & 60s, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors who had lived in Paris after the war before emigrating to Australia. Both her parents were the only survivors of their families & their marriage wasn't always a happy one. They didn't talk about their experiences & had very little in common. Ramona's mother was a voracious reader who already knew several languages & taught herself English through her reading. Ramona was encouraged to read but she never discussed her reading with her mother & now sees that as a lost opportunity to know her mother better.

Ramona was a good student & had her sights set on a scientific career until, as she puts it, she married her own Charles Bovary & found herself married & pregnant at the age of 20. All her reading of Flaubert, Mary McCarthy's The Group & Betty Friedan hadn't made her any wiser. Eventually she began a career in radio, first science journalism with the Marie Curiosity Show & eventually Books & Writing on Radio National.

This book is structured around Koval's life & the books she was reading at each stage. So she moves from Enid Blyton to Colette & Simone de Beauvoir. She reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kafka & George Orwell. A fascination with anthropology leads to Margaret Mead & then the books debunking Mead's theories. There are the books she reads about Poland to try to understand more about her parents' early lives. Sometimes the memory of a book or a story leads to the recollection of an interview with the writer as when she meets Grace Paley & Oliver Sacks. I would have liked more about the writers Koval has interviewed although I realise this isn't that kind of book. There are already a couple of collections of interviews, Speaking Volumes & Tasting Life Twice, that were published some time ago. What I enjoyed here was the more informal recollections & Koval's own recollections of reading the work & then meeting the author. As an interviewer she is always intent on keeping the spotlight on her subject.

My favourite chapter, probably because I share the obsession, was about the memoirs of polar explorers. She reads Scott, Shackleton, Cherry Apsley-Garrard. She shares my fascination with the efforts of these men, venturing into the unknown in inadequate clothing & risking their lives for a handful of penguin eggs. She wants to know what they read during the long polar nights & discovers their love of poetry, reference books to settle arguments & cookbooks to feed their fantasies when all they had to eat was seal meat & blubber.

By the Book is a walk through the life & library of an intelligent, inquiring woman. I know Ramona Koval's voice so well that I could hear her voice as I read & I enjoyed learning about her life as well as about the books she's read. I could only agree when she wrote, "A library is a kind of autobiography of interests, fads and life stages."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Anglo-Saxon Art - Leslie Webster

This is a beautifully-produced book on a fascinating subject. I've been interested in the Anglo-Saxons ever since I first read about the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The gold & garnets, the mix of Christian & pagan objects, that helmet with the distinctive, mustachioed face looking back at me, were all captivating. Since then I've read about the Sutton Hoo dig & many other archaeological discoveries, all of them adding to our knowledge of this period. The glorious Staffordshire Hoard, discovered only a few years ago, has added to our knowledge & posed more questions at the same time.

The Anglo-Saxon period begins in the 5th century, after the end of Roman occupation of Britannia & ends with the Norman Conquest of 1066. Leslie Webster's book is divided into thematic chapters describing the different influences from Europe & beyond that created the distinctive style known as Anglo-Saxon. The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain after the Romans, the Christian missionaries sent by Pope Gregory in 597, the Celtic Christianity of Iona & Lindisfarne, the trading routes bringing influences from eastern Europe & Byzantium & the Vikings & other Scandinavian raiders & settlers.

What we think of as the characteristic features of Anglo-Saxon art is dependent on what has survived. This seems an obvious point but it's worth making as Leslie Webster does in her book. What has survived is only a fraction of what must have originally existed. If you think about the Viking invasions, the religious upheavals, the periods when Anglo-Saxon manuscripts & artwork wasn't valued, the random events such as fires & floods where so much was destroyed, it's amazing that we have as much as we do. Sometimes objects survived in Europe because they were taken there by missionaries from England. Sometimes, as with the Staffordshire Hoard, objects were buried & only rediscovered centuries later. Sometimes, the objects were grave goods. Imagine how much more could still be buried, waiting for rediscovery.

I wish I could show you every page of this book. There are over 200 illustrations in a book of just over 200pp. Almost every object described in the text is illustrated. There is magnificent gold & garnet jewellery, illuminated manuscripts decorated with interlace & animals in the initials, carved ivory caskets, stone crosses, intricate metalwork & embroidery like the Bayeux Tapestry. Webster describes the objects in detail, explaining the symbolism & imagery used & comparing it to other objects of the same period & style. Looking at the manuscripts, personal possessions & jewellery of the Anglo-Saxons is an excellent way to begin to understand the people.Webster weaves enough history into her narrative to set the scene but the focus is always on the objects. All the iconic objects are here from the Sutton Hoo helmet to the Alfred Jewel, the Lindisfarne Gospels, & the Franks Casket. There are also many objects that were new to me. This is a beautiful book written by someone who knows her subject intimately & can convey her knowledge easily.