Book reviews: The Secret of Terror Castle, The Nonesuch and Sea Room

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Jan 2013 month of rereadingThe month of re-reading is continuing to go well, with two old favourites all comfy-like and one that I have only read once before and REALLY enjoyed revisiting …

Robert Arthur – “The Secret of Terror Castle”

(22 November 2012)

I know I read all of these as a child/teenager so they all count. And this is the very first of the Three Investigators series, in which Bob, Pete and Jupiter Jones reassuringly prove all seemingly paranormal and scary phenomena to be the work of human agents. This is the first Alfred Hitchcock book and sets the background and the procedures for all of the others (again, reassuring). They inveigle their way into meeting Hitchcock and investigate a “haunted” castle he wants to use in a film. Dramatic and well-written, with twists and turns and humour. Good, escapist reading with all peril carefully explained away.

Georgette Heyer – “The Nonesuch”

(2011 – omnibus from BookCrossing)

Not many people’s favourite, but I really enjoyed this Heyer set entirely in Yorkshire. The famous Nonesuch has inherited a stately home that’s been owned by a miser uncle, and causes flurries in the neighbourhood when he moves in to renovate it. He has two very different cousins under his wing, and all three make their mark on local society in their different ways. We have a deliciously naughty minx, Tiffany, who, however, turns out not to be the heroine of either the action or the emotional centre: that belongs to her sweet neighbour, Patience, and her companion, Miss Trent, respectively. Misunderstandings ensue, characters are redeemed and get their just deserts, and the background and period detail are of course impeccable. I really like this one and its unusual setting.

Again, I read all of the Heyers as a teen, so I don’t have a review to compare it with, but did remember something of the main characters from that pale green hardback of so many years ago.

Adam Nicolson – “Sea Room”

(19 June 2002)

What an absolute treat of a re-read! Nicolson inherited the three tiny Scottish Shiant Isles in his 20s, but it was only as he prepared to pass them on to his own son that he decided to have their geology, wildlife, history and archaeology researched by experts, and to record a year in his life with the islands.  This was the result.

His writing is beautiful, of course – I would read anything he has written, as he is such an accomplished writer, and his descriptions of land, sea, people and wildlife are stunning, as are his evocations of past residents and their lives, both rich and harsh, and his own relationship with the islands he so obviously deeply loves. The sections on the bird life of the islands, puffins, gannets and the like, are astonishingly lovely and hugely evocative. Humble and self-deprecating as ever, with an eye for a story against himself, respectful and with a lively interest: a marvellous book.

My review from my first read in July 2002 (how up to date was I then, and ooh, get me with my references to Icelandic verse! I was nearer my study of it then, although I did notice the language this time round, too!)

“Excellent, vivid and evocative account of the islands he owns, their geology, biology and history, all told in a plain but lyrical prose that echoes the language of the old skaldic and eddic verse. Full of emotion but plain spoken. Lovely.”

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I’m about to start the last volume of Susan Cooper’s “Dark is Rising” sequence and a little way through “Persuasion”.

Are you taking part in the Month of Re-Reading?  Do tell me all about it!

Book reviews: It’s Game Time Somewhere and The Mayor of Casterbridge

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Jan 2013 month of rereadingAs I work my way further into the month of re-reading, I’ve had a lovely satisfying wodge of Hardy to get my teeth into. I have had to stray away from the well-trodden path again, though, as I won a book on the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme, and the deal with those is that you have to read and review them within a month of receipt. So, there will be one more review of a non-re-read, then it’s familiar territory through to the end of the month (hooray!)

Tim Forbes – “It’s Game Time Somewhere”

(LibraryThing Early Reviewers; e-book)

Forbes, after one career change involving becoming a golf promoter, decides to re-ignite his old love of sports, planning a quest to see 50 different sports events over the course of a year. But heading to what he thinks will be the great, big game/event fun of his youth, he finds both the sportspeople (arrogant, celebs) and the crowds (alcohol fuelled and aggressive) ruined for him, perhaps by the greed of the team and event owners and especially the media. Here he has to deepen his search below the slightly shallow level he’s been pursuing, and look at research on the subject, which makes it more interesting and valid, actually.

Will his old love of sports be rekindled by an engagement with the “minority” sports he finds a little ridiculous? Will he find a new way to “monetize” minority sports and participation (this aspect annoyed me a bit, but it is the lens through which he, as a sports events promoter and marketer, sees things). I was moved by the description of his wife’s enthusiastic new hobby of running and the description of her first half marathon. It wasn’t at all a bad read, although it took a bit of time to get going into the actual meat of the quest, and a lot of the information was of course on American sports, so I missed some of the finer detail as I didn’t know the rules, but it was interesting and a good read – also a bit more substantial than some of the e-books one comes across.

Thomas Hardy – “The Mayor of Casterbridge”

(Bought 1980s)

A deep psychological study of Michael Henchard’s rise and fall through Wessex society, and a gripping page-turner full of dramatic irony and reversals of fortune, played out against a rich landscape of town and country, modern commerce and ancient monuments. Decency prevails, even in dark hearts, and old loyalties hold true. Elizabeth-Jane, the heroine, is a quiet character in the vein of Thomasina from “The Return of the Native”; the supper scene with two love rivals grasping the same piece of bread is sublime; the low characters are kept in check but still add light and shade. The Chorus stands in judgement and fate looms over the characters, a fate growing from their own character flaws, magnified and twisted as the narrative powers on. Back to the masterpieces and a satisfying read.

I really do not remember much about this book, although I’ve clearly read this copy of the book before. You’d think that I’d recall that the heroine shares my name! I do remember the feel of it and the town, and I will without doubt re-read it again at some point; it’s a masterpiece, not too dismal but with layers and depth and truly moving scenes.

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Currently reading – I’ve just finished the third book of the “Dark is Rising” sequence but can’t start the next one until M has started this one. Also in the middle of a lovely Georgette Heyer, “The Nonesuch”, set in Yorkshire and delightful!

Book reviews: Daniel Deronda and Skating to Antarctica

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Jan 2013 month of rereadingWell, this is a bit of an odd Month of Re-Reading post. One book isn’t a re-read at all, but I started it in December and couldn’t bear to skip over it for a whole month (Tony Blair is, however, languishing unread for the duration). The other, dear readers, is A Mistake. Find out why later on …

George Eliot “Daniel Deronda”

(21 January 2012 – from Bridget)

A lovely Everyman edition – I was going to keep it for best and read the text on my Kindle, then I thought better of it, took the cream dust jacket off it and got stuck in.

An amazing book. Given that “Middlemarch” is one of my favourite books ever, I’m not sure why I have never read any of Eliot’s other novels. That will now change. I couldn’t put this book down throughout its 900 pages.

It’s the story of Daniel Deronda, of course, with whom we rather fall in love, as he works his way rather circuitously towards finding his roots. Even though Eliot clearly loves him, too, she draws a rounded character so he never becomes annoying, even when being saintly (there are some great bits about how annoying it is when everyone looks on you like a saint and never asks how you are!), and his interactions with the proud Gwendolyn, a rather Hardyesque character, I felt, are full of feeling and goodness.

Eliot leads us cleverly through the clues and hints, never letting us get lost or confused by the large cast of characters, and I was enthralled at the depictions of different characters, classes, genders, levels of morality, sibling relationships and indeed races. Although she uses the dreaded word, “Jewess”, not a word that is found acceptable nowadays, George Eliot is firmly on the side of the Jewish characters, and examines conscious and unconscious anti-Semitism with a clear eye.

My only criticism is that I could have done with a few notes to explain some of the more contemporary and obscure references. But how lovely to find a book I know I will return to again and again!

Jenny Diski – “Skating to Antarctica”

(26 February 1998)

My first Month of Re-reading dud! But wait: it’s only the wrong blooming book! The one I meant to read was Sara Wheeler’s “Terra Incognita”. I had even had a conversation about this with a friend in a cafe in December, when I dredged her name out of the back of my mind.

I only realised it was the wrong one when I was part way through, so I persisted, as it was a fairly short book and quick read. This was an odd mixture of Antarctic travel – which did have its interest and good descriptions – and early misery memoir, describing a seriously odd upbringing, her attempts to find more about that from her old neighbours, and several bouts of mental illness and hospitalisation, which all made for decidedly uncomfortable reading!

In fact, I’m surprised I kept it, and will be deaccessioning it now. Here’s my unrevealing review from my first read in March 1998 (oh for the days where I read books a mere month after acquiring them!)

A great book, about her relationship with her parents and self, seen through a trip to Antarctica. Combines self-examination and emotional/intellectual rigour with good, classic travel writing.

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I’m currently working my way through the Susan Cooper “Dark is Rising” sequence, about to start the third volume. I have had to derail from re-reading again, as I have a LibraryThing Early Reviewers book to read and review by the end of the month, but I’m 68% of the way through that (an e-book, as you may have guessed) and once that’s done I’m off to Casterbridge with Thomas Hardy!

Are you taking part in the Month of Re-Reading? Do tell me all about it!

Book reviews: Some Tame Gazelle and Dear Fred

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Jan 2013 month of rereadingIt’s the start of my Month of Re-Reading in January and I have a confession to make. While “Some Tame Gazelle”, the Virago LibraryThing Group’s first Barbara Pym Centenary Readalong book, was selected for this month of re-reading and should have been read around now, I had a few bus journeys in the back end of 2012 which necessitated a smaller book than the current reads, Tony Blair’s autobiography and “Daniel Deronda” (there, I mentioned it again!). So I popped “Some Tame Gazelle” into my handbag, and there I was, finishing it before the year was out.

So, one book from last year and one from this, this time – but both re-reads …

Barbara Pym – “Some Tame Gazelle”

(29 Sept 2012 – although I have read this several times, I somehow didn’t have a copy)

I was introduced to Barbara Pym by Mary, a neighbour who was like a third grandmother to me – and introduced me to socialism, home-made ice cream, Elizabeth Taylor, Iris Murdoch and Barbara Pym, amongst others. She’s a quintessentially English author, as we’ll see, and her novels are set in a world of librarians, curates and spinster ladies in London bedsits and charming villages, of which only shadows now remain. But, oh, what a good read she is.

This novel is one of the village ones, with rectors and curates and late middle-aged versions of Pym and her sister, each with a clerical obsession. So English – here’s a scene at the Vicarage garden party:

“Lady Clara … bought some jam, two marrows, half a dozen lavender sachets, a tea cosy, a pair of bed socks, some paper spills in a fancy case and an embroidered Radio Times cover.”

Tiny slights and morsels of gossip are magnified and picked over, and the worst decision one has to make is whether one dares to make a jumper for a Man. The sisters are beautifully done, the Archdeacon is hilarious, and lost love can in the end be a comfort – as much as gardening can, in fact. Old acquaintances reappear, the opportunity for romance has not entirely disappeared, and lost-to-progress characters like the home-visiting dressmaker and the lady who buys your old clothes drift in and out.

A lovely book, although my favourites are the ones with the anthropologists and librarians (there is a librarian in this one, and a very amusing one at that, though).

K.M. Peyton – “Dear Fred”

(03 November 2012)

A book I loved as a teenager but had mixed up with the Flambards books. I was happily reminded of the title, bought a second-hand copy and saved it up gleefully for the Month of Re-Reading.

Well! As with my re-reading of “My Friend Flicka” last re-reading session, the adult-related – and ADULT – nature of this book took me slightly by surprise! It’s the story of Laura, who grows up from age 13 to 20 or so, and is in love with Fred Archer, the champion jockey, who exists in a world tantalisingly close to her own, making her passion for him even more all-encompassing. But it’s also the story of her mother, in love with Laura’s paternal uncle, who runs a racehorse training stables next door to their own (roundly mocked) genteel arts-and-crafts home (the book is set in the 1880s).

There is one love scene I remembered from my teenage readings, witnessed by Laura and the mysterious Tiger, a boy gifted in a curious and magical way, who tries to claim Laura away from her love for Fred. But there are several others, including a rather D.H. Lawrentian deflowering, and Lawrence does seem to hover, with some rough contrasts and slight obsession with women’s hidden sexual natures. There are also some rather odd practices in the mother’s bohemian past, so it’s a skewering of 1860s and 1880s fashions and crazes as well as a detailed and atmospheric portrait of horse racing at that time. This all makes it a more rich, but more adult book than I remembered.

So, as good as I remembered, but different; very atmospheric and the adult content make it a book for all ages.

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I’m currently lapping up the first in the Susan Cooper “Dark is Rising” sequence as well as being part way through Jenny Diski’s rather odd “Skating to Antarctica” (and dear Daniel) so it’s a good, rich and varied start to my reading year!

Are you taking part in the Month of Re-Reading? (Even with one book – I must read another for the first time for LibraryThing Early Reviewers!) Do tell me all about it!

A month of re-reading in January – my selection

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Jan 2013 month of rereadingWell, it’s that time again – my friend Ali and I decided to have a month of re-reading every six months or so, to revisit those books we’ve loved and kept, but not got round to re-reading because of the huge, tottering To Be Read mountain. It went really well in July 2012 (that links to the first post: there’s a category for all of these re-reading posts, too).

It’s quite an ambitious pile this month, but there are some YA books and a Georgette Heyer, which should be quick reads …

Georgette Heyer – “The Nonesuch” – a classic Heyer hero and a great, comforting, favourite author of mind

Susan Cooper – “The Dark is Rising Sequence” – repurchased in the separate volumes; I might be able to get M to join in with this one. An absolutely classic mid-winter read

K.M. Peyton – “Dear Fred” – beloved in my youth, the title forgotten, chased after the story in others of her books then found it was this one thanks to a LibraryThing friend – hooray!

“The Secret of Terror Castle” – I had to work one of the 27 Three Investigators books I pounced on in a charity shop into the mix

Hazel Holt – “A Lot to Ask: A Life of Barbara Pym” – the LibraryThing Virago Group are doing a Pym-a-month readalong this year. I’ve already whizzed through “Some Tame Gazelle” in the last few days, so thought I’d go for the biography this month

Adam Nicolson – “Sea Room: An Island Life” – I’m slightly obsessed with the Nicholson family (Nigel was married to Vita Sackville-West) and devoured Adam’s Sissinghurst book in 2011, so fancied a revisit of this one (it made it onto the non-fic list for the last month of re-reading but I ran out of time)

Jenny Diski – “Skating to Antarctica” – I do like an Antarctic book and was talking about this one with a freelancer friend just before Christmas

Thomas Hardy – “The Mayor of Casterbridge” – this month’s read in Ali’s Chronological Hardy read, and one I have actually read before

Jane Austen – “Persuasion” – I want to “do” a regular Austen, and was vacillating between this and Emma, the two I know least well, though of course I’ve read them all. Ali’s doing this one, so I decided to go for it, too

I’m not sure that I’ll get to all these, but I’ll have fun trying! Ali’s picks are here, and do tell me if you’re going to take part yourself (you don’t have to dedicate the whole month to re-reading, and I’ll be finishing lovely “Daniel Deronda” too) and if you’ve read any of these books.