Book Destash: Jan/Feb update

One is for book group, so that's okay...
One is for book group, so that’s okay…

I’m making steady progress through my reading list for this year. I’ve finished two books and am nearing the end of the third, but I need to read five books every four months to get through all 20 and that doesn’t take into account reading anything that’s not on the list…like the ones I couldn’t resist buying today.

From my 2014 book destash list I’ve read:

6. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The first Sherlock Holmes story and one of only four full length novels. Despite a unexpectedly detailed aside explaining Mormon history, I really enjoyed it and I definitely want to read more of the original stories.)

9. The Carrier by Sophie Hannah (A modern crime novel and very different from the Conan Doyle. I initially found the sheer number of characters confusing, but once I’d figured out who knew who and how, I was hooked. Although I guessed whodunnit, the motive and the twists involving other character were still surprising. I later found that it was part of a series and some of the characters would have been familiar to me if I’d read the earlier books.)

1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013 Costa Winner and short-listed for the 2013 Women’s Prize – deservingly I think. I will write a proper review of this wonderful novel when I’ve read the last few pages).

The House of Silk

The similarities are listed here

Confession time: I’ve never read a ‘proper’ Sherlock Holmes novel. I’ve read (and even taught) a few of the short stories but somehow I never got round to the longer adventures. (This is slightly less shameful if one remembers that Conan Doyle only wrote four full-length novels.) I can’t really explain the omission; I enjoyed the stories I did read, even if they are somewhat formulaic, and I much prefer cerebral detective fiction (arguably all influenced by the Holmes’ canon) to the more graphic and gory alternatives. I love the BBC’s Sherlock series (so much so that my last Year 8 class managed to distract me for a whole lesson by discussing how he faked his death) and one of my favourite aspects of House (apart from the fabulous Hugh Laurie and pretty Billy Kennedy Jesse Spencer) was spotting the Holmes references. Jonathan Creek is fabulous too, if you ignore the ridiculous denouement in the latest episode.

Okay, now I’m rambling and using this post as an excuse to search for pictures of attractive men… The point I was trying to make is that I’m not an expert on Sherlock Holmes and any real aficionado should feel free to factually correct / vehemently disagree with or simply be horrified by what I’m about to say about Antony Horowitz’s new(ish) contribution to the saga.

Horowitz is himself a prolific crime writer (best known for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, as well as his children’s fiction) and he has stated that this novel was written not as a parody, modern adaptation or even an homage, but a genuine Sherlock Holmes novel in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. It’s quite a claim and it means the book must be judged twice, so…

1. Does it live up to Horowitz’s claim?

English: Sherlock Holmes (r) and Dr. John B. W...
Watson and Holmes by Sidney Paget. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my non-expert opinion, it does. The structure (a formula which has been adopted and adapted by many writers of detective fiction) is faithful to the original. After a brief preface in which Watson explains why this case has never been published before, the story starts in 221b Baker Street, then a mysterious man arrives, tells his story and asks for Holmes’ help. This is followed by a visit to the man’s countryside home where Holme’s discovers clues (and red herrings) that Watson and the reader misinterpret etc etc… The language echoes the style of the originals and (despite the occasional slip) the vocabulary is convincingly Victorian. Horowitz has made it a little more accessible for the uninitiated modern reader but justifies this by setting the composition of the novel circa 1916, so Watson’s language would have evolved. The naming of the two intertwined cases – ‘The Man in the Flat Cap’ and ‘The House of Silk’ – comes just after Watson criticises a previous title, nicely linking this story to the others. Familiar faces pop up throughout the novel including Mrs Hudson and Moriarty (who is not explicitly identified and, in this case, trying to help his nemesis solve a crime even he finds abhorrent) I like that Horowitz chose to develop Lestrade’s character rather than just lampoon him, as it demonstrates the older Watson’s reflective nature. The very end, which I won’t spoil, is also a fitting celebration of the real heart of Conan Doyle’s novels – not the fiendish cleverness of Holmes and his opponents, but the partnership between the protagonists.

2. Is it a good novel in it’s own right?

imagesMy book group friends all enjoyed it, even those who don’t normally read crime fiction. Most of us tried to solve the crime before Holmes and each of us spotted a few clues and missed others. (Interestingly we probably would have figured it out if we’d pooled our thoughts.) This suggests that Horowitz pitched the puzzle well, allowing the reader to feel slightly smarter than Watson but still aeons behind Holmes, as in the originals. The two seemingly separate cases connected convincingly enough and the set-piece in which Holmes explains everything was satisfying (apart from the off-centre fountain, which I presume was just a red herring). Some readers might find the nature of the crimes rather upsetting – let’s just say the the brutal murder of a 13 year-old boy is not the worst bit – but Watson does warn us in the preface that these were crimes too shocking to be recorded at the time. While I would think twice about teaching this novel to a GCSE class, there is nothing explicit or graphic in the text. Overall it’s a good book about a great character. I’m now more likely to try one of Conan Doyle’s longer novels and there is suggestion that Horowitz may be asked to produce a sequel, which I’d certainly read.

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Baking and Glazing

On Monday, the first ‘big new house job’ commenced. Replacing the old, cold aluminium window frames at the front of the house with uPVC ones and (hopefully) more energy-efficient double-glazing. We decided to go with a smaller, local firm (Acorn Windows) on a friend’s recommendation and we’re very pleased with service and the results. The two gentlemen fitting the windows were fantastic. This house keeps throwing new ‘quirks’ at us, courtesy of the ‘handyman’ previous owner (as one of the window-fitters put it, “it’s the house that Jack built”) but they dealt with all the nasty surprises admirably, working for eleven hours with barely a break to sort out the bay window.

Unfortunately, the fitting dates coincided with my turn to host our newly itinerant book group, which led to a mad scramble to a) sort out where the Jam will be sleeping until we replace his curtains; b) get him bathed and to bed; c) eat fish and chips with DH. Managed two out of three before the doorbell rang…

IMG_1216Fortunately for the lovely window-fitters, book group always results in left-over cake. On this occasion I attempted my first traybake, a Mary Berry marmalade version. Despite being baked in a roasting tin with not quite enough greaseproof paper, it came out beautifully. I’m going to assume that as they’ve already had two slices each (and recommended it to their boss who popped in to see how the job was going), the fitters thought it tasted pretty good too!


I picked up this book based on the title – we were having a ‘lighthouse books‘ month in my book group – and because I haven’t read anything by Jeanette Winterson other than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It’s the story of Silver, an orphan girl who is taken in by the ageless blind lighthousekeeper, known only as Pew. It’s also the story of Babel Dark, the long-dead son of the man who built the lighthouse. Robert Louis Stevenson appears briefly as one of the myriad of storytellers in this novel constructed from layers of stories, both literal and metaphorical.

wintersonAs the narrative skips between past and present (as well as first, second and third person) the stories begin to illuminate and resonate with each other. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is that the different strands seem to unravel towards the end rather than tie up as some readers (myself included) may have preferred. However, this is clearly intentional and Winterson leaves us yearning for more fragments to fill the gaps.

I loved the evocative yet ambiguous names (Silver describes herself as “part precious metal, part pirate” yet the word silver carries a host of other connotations too) and the literary references – stories within stories about stories. Most of all I admired the lightness of Winterson’s writing. Aptly, her prose has the poetic quality associated with the oral tradition of storytelling. Of the many symbols in the novel, the sea and fossils are particularly important; both embody the transitory yet permanent nature of writing/storytelling as well as the contradictory desires for freedom and stability in Silver’s “wild” and “tame’ heart.

I suspect it’s a Marmite book but, though I hate that particular yeast-based spread, I would highly recommend it.

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The [Jane] Eyre Affair & Wide Sargasso Sea

I haven’t posted about book group for a while as the last two books we’ve read are connected and I wanted to write about them together. Jane Eyre is one of my favourite classics, though not one that I’ve reread frequently, so reading two books that owe their existence to Charlotte Bronte’s best-known novel was a real treat. (SPOILER ALERT – I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you know what happens in Jane Eyre, whether you’ve read the book or not. If you don’t know you should either read it or watch this adaptation as soon as possible.)

The main excuse reason for the delay in posting my thoughts is the fact that I decided to reread Jane Eyre as well. I’d forgotten how long the novel is, particularly the section recounting Jane’s time away from Rochester, and I’d forgotten how much I disliked all the male characters, even the ‘goodies’ like St. John Rivers, even (sometimes) Rochester himself. Considering how important the novel has become in feminist theory and criticism, perhaps this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. More interestingly, I didn’t care much for the female characters either, including (sometimes) Jane herself. The first time I read the book, I was younger than the protagonist and found both her love for Rochester and her refusal to be his mistress incomprehensible, but I admired her bravery in running away. Reading it as an adult, Rochester’s appeal and the necessity of ensuring a formal commitment are clear, but the melodramatic disappearance with no plan, no money and no hope seems rather silly. That said, I very much enjoyed immersing myself in Jane’s world and worldview. It’s essentially a great love story (quality chick-lit) and given the first person narration, I still find it astounding that anyone ever believed that Currer Bell was a man!

eyreaffairThe Eyre Affair – The first novel in Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series is set in an alternate reality where the Crimean War is still going on, time-travel is not only possible, it’s heavily regulated and there are frequent brawls over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The great thing about this world is that people REALLY care about literature and reading… so much so, that there are cracks in the wall between the real and fictional worlds. The heroine, Thursday Next, is a literary detective who follows her own advice – time travel – to move to Swindon and buy a new car. The villain is Acheron Hades, who is impervious to bullets and can disguise himself as a sweet old lady. Ostensibly less evil, but far more detestable is Jack Schitt, who works for the shady Goliath Cooperation. And of course, at the end of Jane Eyre, Jane accompanies St. John Rivers to India as his companion – arguably a stronger feminist ending than the real one – but this changes once Thursday and Hades make Thornfield Hall the site of their showdown…

This is an incredibly clever book but hard to describe – it’s satire, fantasy, sci-fi, romance and a thriller, with a few other genres thrown in for luck. It also makes the reader feel clever because although you could enjoy it without even knowing Jane Eyre, there are so many literary puns and references that most readers will recognise some. (When I suggested the book, I told my book group that Miss Havisham makes an appearance as Thursday’s mentor – this actually happens in the sequel, which is also well worth reading.) My favourite moment is either the Rocky Horror style performance of Richard III or the revelation that nobody wrote Shakespeare’s plays (though Thursday’s dad threw in a few of the best lines).

rhysWide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys’s prequel to Jane Eyre is a classic in it’s own right and an ‘important text’ in feminist and postcolonial writing. It tells the story of the Bertha Mason/Rochester before she became the madwoman in the attic, when she was just Antoinette Cosway. How you react to the disparity in the name may well shape how you react to the book as a whole. There was a strong feeling at our book group meeting that this novel could (and perhaps should) stand in it’s own right. The story of Antoinette’s slide into madness (if she is ever really mad) doesn’t need to be grafted onto Jane Eyre. The last section, set in Thornfield Hall during the time-frame of Jane Eyre, is certainly jarring. On the other hand, your name represents your identity, represents your self. In my opinion, the cruellest thing Rochester does is insistently refer to his new wife as Bertha: she laments “I don’t know what I am like now…who am I?” as she searches for the ghost of a woman rumoured to haunt Thornfield.

The book is short, practically a novella, but the shifting narrative perspective means it’s not an easy read. The switches between the two narrators come without warning or marker, leaving the reader feeling lost, alienated and ‘Other’, like the two protagonists. Pleasingly the first and last words belong to Antoinette/Bertha, giving her the voice she never has in Jane Eyre. This is also the voice that Jane (a pale reflection of her predecessor) herself learnt to suppress to get her happy ending…

Two very different books, both great in their own way. If you enjoyed Jane Eyre, read at least one of them. I wonder which Charlotte Bronte would prefer – any thoughts?

Literary Lighthouses

P D James – The Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf - To The Lighthouse
Virginia Woolf – To The Lighthouse

I probably won’t post on our next book group meeting, as the book is Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse (which I’ve already posted on here) and because I still ‘owe’ a post on the last meeting. However, I thought I’d share our ambitious ‘wider reading’ list – it’s not based on genre, theme or author, just title, which should provoke some interesting comparisons…

Perhaps my teacher friends could use this idea for A-level coursework essays, if coursework, A-levels, or English essays last that long!

Jeanette Winterson – Lighthousekeeping

Dystopia-fest (aka 1984 and Brave New World)

Same but different?

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) are probably the best-known dystopian novels ever written. (Lazily, I’m going to assume you know the stories; if not, the synopses here and here might be helpful.) Having spent many years concocting combinations of tenuously linked texts for comparative essays, I’m amazed I never thought to directly compare them; I suspect I would have got some great responses. As one of my book group friends put it “they’re carrot and stick dystopias”. The people in both novels are manipulated and oppressed, but (on the whole) one group believe themselves to be happy while the others live in fear. One has a World State living in mass-produced harmony while the other has three states perpetually at war. Both societies are built on brainwashing (via hypnopaedia or doublethink), sedation (soma or alcohol) and relentless consumerism. Both ban books.

I didn’t have time to reread 1984 before our meeting (though I intend to soon) but I did manage Brave New World, which I haven’t read since I was about fifteen. As in last month’s book, Fahrenheit 451, the vision of the future is frightening accurate in many ways, though grotesquely exaggerated – the idea of genetically engineered babies grown in bottles and conditioned (physically and psychologically) to accept their place in society is unacceptable but not unbelievable. Family life has been degraded to the point where ‘mother’ is a dirty word, siblings are mass-produced only for practical reasons and monogamy is considered rather perverse. The children are conditioned to accept death, somewhat superfluously in a society where nobody grieves because nobody cares. All this shocked me much more than I remember, perhaps because I’m now a mother myself.

As the novel progresses, we see ‘civilization’ through the eyes of John, the Shakespeare-quoting Savage. He functions as our representative, highlighting what is horrific about this perfect society. However, at times, it is John’s morality that seems ridiculous, his judgements that seem cruel. The alternative view is articulated by Mustapha Mond, an intelligent man who keep forbidden books in his safe and dabbled with science in his youth. He defends the status quo, arguing that it is all necessary to maintain stability, which in turn is necessary for happiness. He is persuasive, as is the fact that rebels are not punished so much as rewarded by being sent to live in a colony of likeminded individuals. If life is “nasty, brutish and short“, is it better to believe yourself happy than know yourself to be miserable? Is culture worth sacrificing for contentment? Is stability worth more than passion, truth or beauty? I suspect the answer depends on where (geographically, economically) you are…

There’s much more that could be said about this book; these are just the concerns that resonated most strongly with me. I also know that  Orwell’s novel raises at least as many questions but it’s several years since I read it. Hopefully I’ll come back to dystopia with an analysis of 1984 and a full comparison. In the meantime, I’m planning to read something a bit more cheerful!

Chocolate (and coffee) loaf

Looking good!

The Jam is still getting over his cold and spent this afternoon cuddled up with my Dad watching ‘Grandpa in My Pocket’, leaving me free to indulge in a bit of baking. I found a very easy recipe for a chocolate coffee loaf in my new(ish) Hummingbird Bakery book, so I thought I’d give it a try. Overall it was a success. I remembered what I learnt about silicone bakeware – you do need to grease the pan and leave it to cool completely – and it came out beautifully.

Light, rich and chocolatey

It rose more than I expected but it had a lovely texture. The only flaw is that I couldn’t really taste the coffee, though I’m not really surprised as the recipe only stated one tablespoon of brewed coffee. I’ll have to get DH to make some real espresso next time and use that! As it is, the Jam likes it too.

However, Dad’s determined to lose some weight before Christmas – he’s going to India next week, which could help or hinder the plan – and DH doesn’t do cake, so it looks like the girls at book group will be getting a treat. As we’ve read two dystopian novels, I think it might be a necessary mood-lifter!

A lukewarm response to Fahrenheit 451

Last night I finished our latest book group selection – only a few days after the meeting, which is an improvement on last month. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel by Ray Bradbury, set in America (presumably, I don’t think it’e ever stated explicitly) in a future when books are banned and burned by the firemen (men who start rather than stop fires). Interestingly the banning of books is not a proactive censorship measure by a despotic government, but a reaction to a society that has stopped reading and regards books as disruptive and divisive. It’s the story of Guy Montag, a fireman who starts reading…

At least, that’s what Bradbury insists in both the afterword and the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition. The book grew out of a novella called ‘The Fireman’ so it ought to be Montag’s story, but in many way I found him to be the least interesting character in it. The tone of his dialogue (and internal monologues) arguably conveys the zeal of a recent convert, but (like his reading of ‘Dover Beach’ to the ladies in the parlour) it often just seems melodramatic. I found the minor characters far more engaging, particularly the way they embody opposing attitudes and choices: Faber and Beatty are both well-read but one loves books while the other is angry with them; Millie hides in her parlour with the artificial ‘family’ while Clarisse explores the world and talks late into the night with her parents and uncle.

Two aspects of the novel dominated our book group discussion. The first was the uncanny accuracy of many of Bradbury’s predictions, from stomach pumps and flat screen TVs to a society that prefers the digest of the digest to an actual book. (My students used to at least read York notes, but more recently many relied on the Wikipedia summary rather than opening a book.) We also talked a lot about the ‘Dover Beach’ moment, wondering why this is always the poem a writer chooses to demonstrate the power of literature to move and improve the uncomprehending heathen (Ian McEwan uses it to pacify a violent criminal in Saturday.) Half-way through the conversation, I looked again at Arnold’s poem and saw that it describes perfectly the society Bradbury envisions in Fahrenheit 451, from the people who have “really neither joy, nor love” in their “land of dreams, so various” and who know so little about coming war in which “ignorant armies clash by night”, destroying them all. That realisation made me like the whole book rather more.

I read the final section after the meeting so I knew roughly what going to happen – pretty much every bad thing you could possibly imagine! I found it a little difficult to accept that so much could go wrong simultaneously, as if Montag’s rebellion had upset the global balance, but Bradbury wove each plot strand through the earlier sections well and made good use the shifting metaphor of fire (from burning and destructive to warm and life-giving) to counteract what could have been a very bleak ending.

The general feeling at book group was that it isn’t the greatest dystopian novel ever written but it is a good book, which raises some interesting and important questions that are at least as relevant now as when it was first published.  We thought that it didn’t quite match up to 1984 or Brave New World, but it’s a long time since any of us have read either of those and few have read both, so we’re making next month ‘the dystopia meeting’ and will attempt a proper, fair comparison after revisiting our old favourites. If I’m not too depressed after that, I’ll let you know the verdict…

Nights at the [Night] Circus

I’ve now almost finished our last BAGLADIES* selection, only a week and a bit after the meeting.  In my defence, we had two books to read over the summer – Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.  In the early days of BAGLADIES we always read two books and often found a range of unusual ways to link them – my favourite combination was Frankenstein and We Need to Talk About Kevin, but that’s another post.  These days, as many of us have husbands, kids and/or demanding jobs we stick to one and make an exception for the summer, as we don’t meet in August.  I’m pleased to report that the latest novels generated a lot of discussion and had more in common than the very similar titles.

The Night Circus – two friends recommended this to me in the same week I bought a copy, and before we chose it for BAGLADIES.  I loved it, to the point where I want to go to the Night Circus and explore for myself.  (There is an online experience, but I haven’t had a proper look yet.)  The slightly fleeting characterisation was intriguing, if occasionally infuriating as they slipped through your fingers, and fitted the tale (for it is definitely a tale) well.  The ultimate union of the two timelines was satisfying, even if the ending itself felt a little uncertain.  I found the two types of magic intriguing, as it seemed to fit the old patriarchal model of male magic (science and books) versus female magic (instinct and bodies) that goes back to Shakespeare’s The Tempest and probably much further. Oh, and it’s a really sweet love story…

Nights at the Circus – This was my suggestion, as I was sure I’d read it years ago and thought it would be an interesting comparison. I found an old copy at home, but on picking it up everything seemed brand new – a mark of a great novel or a clue that I didn’t read it the first time?  The feminist symbolism has perhaps dated a little – the significance of a large woman with wings and sword feels somewhat heavy-handed in post-third-wave, post-post-feminism 2012, but the metaphors were innovative for 1984 and the magic realism means they still work without distracting from the story (or tale, again).  Also a love story, amongst other things, this reminded me why I like Carter and made me want to read more of her weightier novels, though her collection of short stories (The Bloody Chamber) remains my favourite.

* Blackheath And Greenwich Literature And Drinking In the Evening Society