Snowed in…so why can’t I finish a book?

Rural Northumberland is deep in snow! We have had snow since last Wednesday, and things have been adapted / cancelled since then. I have been wallowing around the house, painting nativity figures for the Church… and watching far too much tv. Foyle’s War, anyone?

It is the deepest snow I have ever seen; at least a foot deep and much more where it’s drifted or been shovelled.  Not a friendly environment! Happily I’m not on the point of starvation as Husband and Son One have been out foraging, but Husband has been muttering darkly about not getting to London as planned. I just stayed in until transported to the Metrocentre Odeon to see the new Harry Potter by Son One, which as a plan worked well until we came back into the parish…heavy, sticking snow. Yikes!  Happily he managed to reverse nicely into the drive and I made it up the ramp (cleared this morning;thanks J!) so all was well. And it was a great film, though really sad at the end. A Booklist…

1  Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen




2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien




3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte




4 Harry potter





5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee





6 The Bible



7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte



8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell



9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman




10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens




11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott



12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy




13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller




14 Complete Works of Shakespeare



15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier




16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien


17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks




18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger




19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger


20 Middlemarch – George Eliot




21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell




22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald




24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy



25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams




27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky



28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck



29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll



30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame



31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy



32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens




33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis




34 Emma -Jane Austen



35 Persuasion – Jane Austen



36 The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis




37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini




38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres



39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden



40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne



41 Animal Farm – George Orwell




42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown



43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez



44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving



45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins



46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery



47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy



48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood



49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding


50 Atonement – Ian McEwan



51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel



52 Dune – Frank Herbert



53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons



54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen



55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth



56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon



57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens



58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley



59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon



60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez




61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck



62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov


63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt



64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold


65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas



66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac



67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy



68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding



69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie



70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville



71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens



72 Dracula – Bram Stoker



73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett



74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson



75 Ulysses – James Joyce



76 The Inferno – Dante



77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome



78 Germinal – Emile Zola



79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray



80 Possession – AS Byatt



81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens



82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell



83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker



84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro



85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert



86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry



87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White



88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom



89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle



90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton



91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad



92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery



93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks



94 Watership Down – Richard Adams



95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole



96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute



97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas



98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare



99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl



100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Thank you Son one for fighting with this list!

This list is going the rounds at the moment and I thought that I would include it. Sorry about the irregular gaps, but there are things beyond my control. I think that it shows that I have read 55 books – including some long ones – in bold type, and have read bits of the ones in italics. Yes, yes, I know that I should do better, but some lists are easier than others. I think that this list is very classics heavy, but perhaps that’s no bad thing.  At the moment I seem to have umpteen books on the go, with no imminent danger of finishing any of them. I will post as soon as I have – unless the power goes… watch this (frozen) space! Significant snowfall since 4pm….

And the Snow it Snoweth every Day – and A Live Life Class

Yes, up here in the Frozen North it is Snowing! (on and off, usually at the exact moment that I need to go out – sigh). Last year we had snow from 17th December to February. Hmm. Ah well, Daughter has turned up in co ordinated snow outfit. Glad to see someone is enjoying it. Huzzah!

Son One has just reminded me to point out that the end of the new Harry Potter film is “very sad”. You have been warned, but I would still like to see it — hint, hint.

Today’s book is also sad, tragic, and a little frightening, but given the subject matter of the First World War, that is hardly surprising. I wrote a while ago about the “Free Thinking” Festival at the Sage. The opening event that I attended was Books at Breakfast, featuring an interview with Pat Barker. She was speaking about her book  Life Class.

I actually read this book quite a while ago, and while I cannot say that I enjoyed it, I found it a fascinating novel of the characters and the time. The picture of the Slade School of Art and its characters was engaging, especially the troubles of the main character, Paul, whose working class credentials stood in sharp contrast to the other students. This was a point emphasised by Pat, who read an extract in which Paul gets mightily fed up with his drawings being rejected, when they would have been praised at home. He is only there because of a legacy from his redoubtable grandmother, briefly mentioned but a believeable character nonetheless. The book is like that; many little remarks, pictures and characters which add to the whole, but do not necessarily develop. I read a review in which the ending is critiscised as not really concluding the story. Having just reread it, I can see the argument, but I think it is a lovely, genuine ending saying a lot about real life and relationships.

This is a book which is difficult to say I ‘enjoyed’ because it paints a realistic picture of life as a medical orderly on the Front line. There is death and injury, and while it is a fictional account, Pat B is so detailed in her research that it sits well alongside any other account that I have read. Paul chooses to paint a picture of the battle which is not for display; it is just the urge to record, to comment, which overcomes him.

Pat B was keen to point out the fact that Paul is the working class character that she sympathizes with, and while it is another novel in which a male dominates, the female characters are still well drawn and important. In contrast with the fictional Paul, Henry Tonks the art teacher at the Slade did exist, and indeed became a vital medical illustrator. And he is the revelation, there is to be another book to follow Life Class, with the character of Tonks featured. This will perhaps answer the points about not quite finishing Life Class fully.  I look forward to reading another first World War novel by this prize winning author, whose Regeneration Trilogy I remember reading with great interest.

Pat B was also very interesting on the subject of her writing, how the first draft of Union Street ended up in the bin only to be rescued by her other half, and how her life experiences added to to her creative writing training to encourage her realistic Northern writing style. She did pass on various hints to aspiring writers, such as writing quickly without editing along the way in order to make the characters live.  Altogether I think that this is a good book, worthwhile in its subject matter, and excellent on the humanity of those involved in a terrible War.

A Capital Crime – a gripping read

So last week, after a quick visit to the home of that great blog -www. – we went about as far away as possible from the setting of today’s book.  We got an early train to Pitlochry, which is Northern, even for us. And it was beautiful. A log fire, an aga, and a lovely warm heating system, and for the first time in many weeks, it was hot! The scenery was incredible, and although it was a short visit, lovely to see some friends from the South again. Thank you, SA and MA!

The book that I read on the train (a very civilized way to travel) took as its setting London, about as far away as possible from our journeying. A Capital Crime by Laura Wilson, is the third in a series of crime novels featuring DI Stratton.

This is the first book in the series I have read, and would perhaps not have attempted it if not for an enthusiastic librarian, as the subject matter is not tempting me at the moment. It is, however, a really gripping read and I found myself turning eagerly onwards to see what would happen. Set in the very early 1950s in a rationed, grey London, there seems very little cheer in this book. A crime is confessed, inquiries made, and a tragedy uncovered. The police are more or less convinced by their investigations and the full horrific details of the double murder touches many chords for Stratton and his colleagues, resulting in the conviction and hanging of a man.

Unease persists, not least among the family of the central character. There is a parallel and intersecting  story of a woman known to Stratton, who has also featured in the previous novels. Diana Calthrop is a woman with a past, and is struggling with her future. Her story is also fascinating, and I was keen to find out what happened to her.

This is, for many potential readers, an historical novel. It is a murder mystery, but more in the nature of putting the pieces together than whodunnit. It creates an impressive narrative, full of detail and a sense of the era. I felt as if I really wanted to know what happened to the characters, and the sense of fear, anger and frustration is involving. It is brutal, but not violent, and some of the descriptions of death and despair are very moving. Out of context it may seem a little gratuitous, but the gritty detail I think is necessary to constructing the whole. Given the situations of the main characters, it is particularly good on relationships, painful, brittle and realistic.

This is not a cheerful book, and once started you will want to read it in a short time. It is not a book to pick up and put down; it deserves to be read as a whole. Normally I would try to read a series in order, but this book stands alone, although the reader would probably benefit from a background knowledge of the previous two novels. As a picture of the legal system in the early 50s it is excellent, and it is indeed based on a two real cases, but not slavishly so. It is an strong argument against capital punishment, and the imperfections of a system in which everyone did their best, even though the guilt threatens to overwhelm on occasions. Read this book if you want a challenging, well written novel which creates a gritty world.

Singled Out and Maisie Dobbs – Leftover women

One of the fascinating areas of reading popular at the moment – or is that every Remembrance Sunday – is the other effect of the carnage of the First World War, being the sheer number of women who survived the War, despite their often risky war work. Mathematics alone shows that there must have been many women who could no longer hope to marry or have relationships with men, so many young men having died or been terribly injured.

Not that I want to dwell on the tragic aspects of this era, but it did mean that women had to enter and become proficient in occupations that they would never have considered possible before. The lovely Persephone Books deal with this subject in some of their reprinted novels, but a factual book which seems to be quite positively dealing with the women’s fates is Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson, subtitled “How Two Million Women Survived Without Men after the First World War”.

This seems on my reading so far to be a positive account of what these women did. It scores a hit with me because it mentions Winifred Holtby and even quotes from The Crowded Street, her novel recently reprinted by Persephone

The Crowded Street

(No.76) which is a moving account of the fate of young women who cannot fulfill their intended destiny of respectable marriage. Not one of Persephone’s most cheerful offerings, but an absorbing read which draws the reader into the plight of women living not so long ago. I would recommend it as an excellent account of the sheer hopelessness (and not in a feeble way) of these women.

Which is a long winded way of getting to today’s book, An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear, being the fifth Maisie Dobbs Mystery. For the uninitiated, Maisie is a girl who though born in the servant class in London, is supported by a wealthy patroness, begins studying at Cambridge, then becomes a nurse in the First World War.  Through the novels she becomes a Private Investigator who looks at different cases using her experiences and intuition. This latest novel fits the pattern well, reflecting the mystery-solving theme amongst some rather poignant events. I read this book quickly, enjoying picking up the clues early (for me, anyway) and the observations on life and death. It is not a cheerful book, but one which is interesting on several levels.

I have commented before that there are several series of books in which an independent female soles murder mysteries in the 20s and 30s. Of all of them, this series is the most sombre and arguably the most obviously well researched. This novel depicts the gypsy way of life, which Winspear has apparently studied carefully. which shows in some laboured passages of description. It is also a little tedious on Maisie’s abilities to become a miraculous diviner.

Those things said, this is an interesting series of books which are worth reading if you are interested in the period of history, murder mysteries and the long term effects of the War on many levels of society.

Lark Rise to Candleford – not the same as the tv

Greetings from the Frozen North! When watching the BBC weather forecast I often point out that this is the coldest place in England; according to the internet it is colder here than Edinburgh. Burr!! And Downton Abbey has finished, a glorious costume drama that had so many male fans ( including in this house) that support groups have been set up. Still, Garrow’s Law is back, so all is not lost.

Rememberance Sunday is, as always, cold. Watched the town parade and was amazed how many younger people were in uniform; from smart air cadets to tiny Boys Brigade. Must not forget the Girls Brigade as well, who looked very smart. Oh, and Daughter’s Choir rose to the occasion, despite a wobbly rehearsal. Daughter looked as though her choir had been stolen and replaced.  Keep the Director of Music guessing, a new policy.

All this talk of town events introduces today’s book. Lark Rise to Candleford, by Flora Thompson

When this book came up at a book group, I was told we simply must read this, because of the tv version. Well, anyone tackling this long book on that basis will be disappointed. Some of the characters are there, but most are disposed of very quickly and their stories certainly do not tend to the whole as neatly as the BBC version. Laura and her birthplace Hamlet are recorded, but she is a bookish child and not the young woman. The Hamlet of Lark Rise is described in loving detail, the rhythms of life faithfully recorded by an author who knew that this way of life was fast disappearing. The first book is a lovely record of a tiny, intricate community, and is only in the second and third book that we see much of the outside world, and then only through the eyes of Laura for whom a small town is a new experience.

This is a classic book, which brings the reader gently into its world view. It can be frustrating in that some of the themes and strands of life are hinted at, even begun, but tail off as if a glimpse will suffice. It is not a coherent novel with a clear narrative flow; it depicts the life of the area as a whole, with tales of characters bumping up against one another as if they occurred to the writer in no particular order. It is, like some eighteenth century novels I have known (and loved!?!), not plot driven, but full of characters richly plundered by the tv writers and developed. To appreciate the book as a whole for all its possibilities of characters, rural facts, historical trends etc  it would be necessary to have a detailed index, which I assume does not exist. It is, in the three volume edition, a long read. It is an involving one, and those fond of the tv version could spend many a happy hour finding the origins of the characters and themes featured. It is a challenge to read this book, but one of those that you miss when you have finished. Maybe I had better dig out the dvds now, and finish missing The Abbey….

A SAGE Weekend on Radio Three – and In the Country of Men

No post for a while?!? Two excuses… I seem to be starting many books and not finishing them, always a problem in this house (and handy library). I also spent much of the weekend at the SAGE in Newcastle rushing around (well, for me) the Radio 3 Free Thinking Event. This took the form of many lectures, read essays (more interesting than it sounds) and debates around subjects as diverse as Electoral Reform, Northern Christianity and Pat Barker’s Life Class. The sessions were recorded for broadcast so I daresay I will have to rediscover the joys of Iplayer radio, as opposed to just watching Single Father and Spooks. There were several authors speaking, including Graham Pears of my last post, and Sarah Dunant of Sacred Hearts which I reviewed many moons ago. Look out for reviews of their books and others, when I actually finish them.

Today’s book is In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar

I admit that this would not have been my first choice of book to read at this point, but it is the Book Group November choice, so I retrieved it from the back of a shelf. I own it simply because it was on the Booker Prize shortlist in 2006 and The Book People were offering the entire shortlist very cheaply. At some point I will write some more reviews on their website!

This book did not seem very tempting to begin with, as it deals with the difficult political situation in  Libya when repression of  activists seemed brutal. There is a disturbing scene or two in which there is suffering and the effects of interrogation, but they do not dominate the book as I had expected. It is essentially written from the point of view of a small boy who witnesses the struggle as ‘The Guide’ comes to power. His mother suffers from a mysterious illness, though her ‘medicine’ is probably under the counter, illegal alcohol. The book recalls events when the boy’s father and his friend’s father disappear, and the boy tries to understand adult events alongside playground fights.

This book works for me because it is consistently the view of a small boy, not analysing, evaluating or justifying, but reacting to events and half truths. There are the concerns of  a boy for what he eats, how he gets on with his friends, his projects of collecting and making. He does not always understand what is going on, but then, neither do the adults. There is the constant theme of betrayal; the accidental betrayal of friends and family when every word must be guarded, the betrayal of the boy’s trust. There is brutality and it is a realistic novel in its basic descriptions of fallible humans. The most betrayed is arguably the boy’s mother, forced into marriage when frighteningly young by her brother’s account of her meeting another teenager. My friend, CB, said that she thought that it was not a happy book, but beautifully written. There are little glimpses of humour, as in the giant picture of ‘The Guide’ in the reception room; the boy fears at one point that they will have to display one in every room when he hears a thump on the door.

It is not a long book, but conveys a lot within its 240 odd pages. It is well balanced, suggests a lot of undercurrents to the reader, and is interesting and involving, but not nightmarish. I cannot say that I enjoyed this book; the subject matter is too upsetting for enjoyment. I did learn a lot, however, and found it a fascinating microcosm of life under a repressive regime. I look forward to discussing it at the book group, and suggest it as a good, serious book, beautifully written.

Authors of the North- at least for a time

When we moved up to the Frozen North, I suppose that I imagined that my days of going to author signings in our local bookshops, reasonably handy for London, were over. And yes, they probably have changed. One local independent bookshop, Cognito in Hexham, does seem to round up quite a few authors to sign their books ( =expensive presents for Husband and others) and seem to organise the book festival in May – hence my sighting of Phillipa Gregory as my post of a few weeks ago.

Another popular author attraction is the Newcastle University Insights lecture programme, open to the public. I have sighted Juliet Nicolson,writer of The Great Silence and more recently Juliet Gardiner writer of The Thirties and The Blitz. More about both writers at a later date.

And tonight, at our local library, Graham Pears, writer of a new crime novel, The Myth of Justice. A retired policeman of the North East, he entertained his audience with many tales of his career, including chasing an escaped lion across Sunderland. If the book turns out to be as funny as his stories, it will be excellent. I think it looks as if it is going to reveal a realistic, if fictional, story of criminal life in the North East, so  I’m looking forward to reading it. His next book comes out in March; I hope to have read this one and posted about it before then. He is due to speak in the City Library in Newcastle on Saturday as part of the Books on Tyne Book Festival. I’m actually due to go to the Free Thinking Event at the Sage, where other authors at to be let loose on the public. It looks good ( and it’s my birthday, so I’ll try to forget my age).

A book after all this gadding about?

After the Armistice Ball by Catriona McPherson is, as may be guessed from the title, another murder mystery set in the Twenties.The Heroine, Danny Gilver, does not seek to solve a murder, thinking only that there is an insurance scandal going on involving friends and acquaintances. Thus she is a fairly inept, if instinctive, investigator, and when murder is suspected she is not motivated by the need for money, furthering her career or anything except a determination to get to the bottom of a convoluted family situation. There are very dramatic events, but there are a lot of very realistic details of Dandy’s own family situation, including her rather awkward husband.

I enjoyed this book; McPherson having established a fairly laid back style and describing a woman who has to worry about her own family responsibilities as well as crime solving. There are elements which are a little repetitive, and one or two loose ends which are a little annoying. It does represent one of an ever increasing number of women detective tales written recently but set in this period, but this does depict a female young enough to be concerned with her appearance and role, but past the courtship with the handsome young detective/lord/policeman stage. I think it is the first of a series as well, and it is a worthwhile, interesting story. It does not go off into psychological studies like the Maisie Dobbs series, but is more substantial than the Daisy Darlymple mysteries. I enjoyed it, and would recommend it as a fairly easy read if a little annoying in places where the narrative does drift a little. It does not have the stamp of authenticity like Patricia Wentworth’s book in my last post, and can sometimes be a little fantastic, but it is a page turner,and worth seeking out. I will try and read the others available in the series, but you know how it is …so many books, so little time…