Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Loved Less/More Than I Thought I Would

Today's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is all about books that exceed or fall short of expectations.  Here's my off-the-top-of-my-head list...decided to split the 10 in two.

Books Loved Less

  1. Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett - I just abandoned this book.  I ended up really not liking the main character and I felt that despite the plot machinations, the story seemed fairly predictable.  After reading over 200 pages, I felt justified in deciding I'd given it a fair shake.
  2. Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley - this series has gotten rave reviews but I really couldn't stand the precocious girl who was the main character.
  3. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke - never finished it.  Got halfway through and was bored to brain fatigue.
  4. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne - yawn...
  5. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury - exhausting and overblown.

Books Loved More

  1. Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott - somehow I never read this as a child or teen, and so was surprised by how good it was for a skeptical, adult reader.
  2. The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins - I wanted to see what the fuss was about and was swept away.
  3. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro - I was totally unprepared for the story, but found it compelling. Distopian fiction is not a genre I like, but this story really worked.
  4. Germinal, by Emile Zola - what a fantastic book, I was expecting a dull book but was overwhelmed by the story and the fully developed characters.
  5. Miss Marjoribanks, by Margaret Oliphant - what a delightful character in this sleeper of a Victorian novel.

Sunday, February 12, 2017


I like to read multiple books at one time, some audio in the car, some Kindle, some paper, some for online reading groups, some for personal reading projects, some for comfort.

Here's what I'm reading these days.

The Dinner by Herman Koch (Sam Garrett, translator) - for GoodReads TuesBookTalk group.  I voted for the thriller genre and this was the book that the group picked--I think I voted for it too.

The Game of Kings, by Dorothy Dunnett - first in her Lymond Chronicles series.  I think I'm going to love this series--Lymond already reminds me of Lord Peter Wimsey. Part of my Reading Northumberland project.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari - a birthday gift from my brother Mark, who raved about it. Non-fiction, slow read, by well-written and utterly fascinating.

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout - my current audio book and on the shortlist for the Tournament of Books.  I'm really liking this one.

Speaking of Tournament of Books, I finished my first book on the shortlist, We Love You, Charlie Freeman.  I really wanted to like it, and I did in parts, but I just didn't believe in the characters.

The audio book I recently finished was Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death, by James Runcie.  The first in the series of books that the Grantchester TV show is based on.  I thought it was a good book with a great main character and interesting mysteries for the vicar to solve in 1950s Cambridge.

Happy reading!

Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Eagle of the Ninth

From Luguvallium in the west to Segedunum in the east, the Wall ran, leaping along with the jagged contours of the land; a great gash of stone-work, still raw with newness. Eighty miles of fortresses, mile-castles, watch-towers, strung on one great curtain wall, and backed by the vallum ditch and the coast-to-coast Legionary road; and huddled along its southern side, the low sprawl of wine-shops, temples, married quarters, and markets that always gathered in the wake of the Legions. A great and never-ceasing smother of noise: voices, marching feet, turning wheels, the ring of hammer on armourer's anvil, the clear calling of trumpets over all. This was the great Wall of Hadrian, shutting out the menace of the North.

This is the beginning of chapter 11 of The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff, and part of my Northumberland reading project, in prep for my walk along Hadrian's Wall this summer, and it is precisely why I wanted to read the book in the first place.  There is a marvelous sense of place throughout the book, as the hero, Marcus Aquila, travels from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) in the south to Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum), up to Chilurnium (on the Wall near Corbridge) and then on to Caledonia (the Highlands of Scotland).

According to Wikipedia:

The Eagle of the Ninth is linked by the Aquila family dolphin ring and listed here in fictional chronological order. (They were not written as a series by the author.)

  • The Eagle of the Ninth
  • The Silver Branch
  • Frontier Wolf
  • The Lantern Bearers
  • Sword at Sunset
  • Dawn Wind
  • Sword Song
  • The Shield Ring

I enjoyed The Eagle of the Ninth immensely--I found it in the YA section of my library, but I didn't let that throw me off.  I loved both the hero, Marcus, a young Roman Centurion from Etruria who comes to live with his uncle in Calleva after he is badly injured in a battle at Isca Dumnoniorum.  There he meets and saves a young Briton gladiator, Esca, makes him his slave, and then makes him his friend.

Together they go on a quest to find out what happened to the Ninth Legion, which marched into the mists of the north and never marched back. It was a first rate historical adventure story and I learned a lot about Roman Britain, the customs and religions of both the conquering Romans and the rebellious Britons, the landscape, and the smell of the air and the feel of the landscape. I will definitely read a few more in the series if not all of them, and I'm looking forward to the movie version, The Eagle, which came out in 2011.

I found myself referring repeatedly to the internet for help with Roman site names, although Sutcliff did provide a map at the beginning of the book and a list of place names at the end.  Here's one that I liked.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Time and Chance - Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Becket

I love historical fiction and Sharon Kay Penman is one of my favorite historical fiction authors. Her books are well-written, her characters interesting and three-dimensional but of their time not ours, and she is a first rate storyteller.

I just finished Time and Chance, the second in her series about the early centuries of the last millenium, and it picks up just where its predecessor, When Christ and His Angels Slept, left off. Henry II of England and Eleanor of Acquitance are the 12th century power couple--passionately in love, soulmates and astute leaders, strong willed, intelligent, and attractive.  They also have lots of children--heirs and spares as well as daughters to marry off advantageously

Time and Chance tells the story of their estrangement--it describes how this well-matched couple started along the path that took them  to the point where they end up at each other's throats.  The fly in the ointment, or perhaps the poison in the well, is none other than Thomas Becket.  He was Henry's closest friend and confident, hunting companion and man about town. And then Henry decided to make him Archbishop of Canterbury, against Eleanor's wise counsel, and Becket became Henry's greatest enemy, causing him years of strife and anguish, trouble and anxiety.

Penman does a wonderful job of leaving the personality and motivation for Becket's about-face ambiguous.  She implies a jealous ambition, a mental instability, and a personality disorder, but we never get inside Becket's mind to know what is going on there.  We only see how his actions and sanctimonious approach to his job undercut Henry's peace of mind, which leads to his seeking solace with the fair Rosamond, and the destruction of his relationship with Eleanor.

I absolutely loved Time and Chance, not just the main story line, but also the wonderfully rich cast of other characters.  I loved hearing the further adventures of Ranulf, the bastard son of Henry I, half-brother of Maud, Henry II's mother, whose allegiances are divided between his loyalty to his English (and Angevine) nephew and his mother's Welsh family.  I also enjoyed reading about the Welsh king and his extended feuding family. Having a lot of sons doesn't necessarily make for a happy home in the 12th century, which is really the subject of the next book in the series, Devil's Brood, which details the further disintegration of Henry II's family as Eleanor and their sons plot against the king.

I think this series would make a fantastic mini-series, along the lines of The White Queen.  Of course, it's hard to imagine a better Eleanor than Katherine Hepburn, but I'm sure there's an actress out there who could prove me wrong.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Agatha Christie = Mary Westmacott

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Reading Northumberland

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

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

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

Hunter Davies, A Walk Along the Wall

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

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

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

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

Charles Barnitz, The Deepest Sea (historical, Vikings)

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

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

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

Henry Treece, Legions of the Eagle 

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

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

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

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

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

Rosalind Kerven, Grim Gruseome books were inspired by Northumbrian legends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Sharpe, Throwback

Gordon Taylor, Cometh the Man (1820s)

Carla Nayland, Paths of Exile (605 AD)

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

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

Audrey Howard, A Place Called Hope (romance)

Denis O'Connor, Pawtracks in the Moonlight

Colin Wilson, The Killer (County Durham)

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

Nevil Shute, Ruined City (aka Kindling): shipbuilding

Donna Fletcher Crowe, A Very Private Grave

Margaret McAllister, High Crag Linn

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

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

Diana Norman, Makepeace Hedley books

Benita Brown

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

Jane Harvey, The Castle of Tynemouth (1806)

Hazel Osmond, Who’s Afraid of Mr Wolfe? 

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

Wendy Perriam, Born of Woman 

Sir Walter Scott

Stephen Baxter, Conqueror

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

Melvyn Bragg, Credo

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

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

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

TBR Pile Challenge for 2016 - wrap up

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

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

Thursday, December 22, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.  A classic in translation.

5.  A classic by a non-white author.

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

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

8.  A classic detective novel.

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

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

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

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

Potpourri of Classics

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

For the 20th century classic category...

By the Shores of Silver Lake, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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

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

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

Emma, by Jane Austen

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Holiday Reads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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