Thursday, May 21, 2015

Thursday Bookshelf - A

After unveiling my new bookcases last week, Rose & Lory asked for some close-up photos of the contents. I've also been inspired by Sue, who blogs at My Quiet Life in Suffolk. She posted pictures of all her bookshelves earlier this year & it prompted memories & stories of where she bought the books & when she read them. I'm sure many of us can remember the books we were reading at significant times of our lives when the details of what we did last Tuesday are irretrievable.

So, as a good librarian should, I'm going to begin at A & post a shelf each Thursday. (I hope the pictures are big enough for you to read the titles. I didn't want to make them any bigger because the page then takes too long to load).


I read this copy of By the Sword Divided by John Adair many years before I finally saw the TV series that was partly based on the book. Among Friends was my school reader. My favourite story was about two children who get to know an old lady living in a tumbledown house. They'd always thought she was a witch but, when she lets them pick the peaches from her tree & gives them lemonade, they become friends. I love it because it's set at Christmas, a hot Australian Christmas. I could always smell the warm peaches as I read. I don't read a lot of Australian history but Robyn Annear's books are always well-written & enjoyable. Bearbrass was one of the early names for Melbourne.


Lots of English history here. When I was a child, Mum took me into the city once a year to see an eye specialist in Collins St. There was a bookshop that I always had to go into & Dulcie M Ashdown's Ladies in Waiting was the book I always took off the shelf & coveted. I couldn't afford the book until some years later. I'm not sure how I managed to be seeing a Collins St specialist (Melbourne equivalent of Harley St) as we weren't well-off but I was & I always wanted this book which I finally bought. Theo Aronson was another favourite Royal biographer from around the same period. Also, Karen Armstrong's memoirs of being a nun & afterwards - stories about nuns have always fascinated me.


The beginning of the Austen collection,

& the end of the Austen collection. As you can see, I have no problem owning multiple copies of the same book. The Folio Society set have lovely woodcut illustrations by Joan Hassall & I am a fan of the Penguin Deluxe editions.

Another shelf next Thursday.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Ghost Fields - Elly Griffiths

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is excavating a possible Bronze Age cemetery when she's called to a nearby field to examine the remains of a WWII plane. The pilot's body is still in the cockpit but Ruth soon realises that he hasn't been there since the 1940s.  DNA testing reveals that the pilot was related to local landowners, the Blackstock family. The family knew that Fred Blackstock had been killed in a plane crash during the war but thought he had crashed at sea. His body was never recovered. So, where has Fred's body been for the last 70 years & why is there a bullet hole in his forehead?

DCI Harry Nelson & DS Dave Clough investigate Fred's death & meet the present day members of the Blackstock family, still living at the lonely family farm near the crash site. Fred's brother, Old George, is still alive & living with his son, Young George & Young George's wife, Sally. George & Sally's son, Chaz, has started a pig farm on some of the family land, & their daughter, Cassandra, is an actress, recently returned home. The land where the plane was found belonged to the Blackstocks but has recently been sold to a developer. The construction work on the new estate uncovered the plane.Old George is the only member of his generation left. His older brother Lewis disappeared after the war & Fred had moved to the United States before the war & was thought to have been killed in a plane crash after joining the US Air Force. The Blackstocks seem to be an unlucky family. Old George's mother said the land was cursed & that the sea would reclaim it one day, before drowning herself & Old George himself has become quite odd in his old age, his "funny turns" only whispered about by the family.

Further complications arise when a TV company wants to use Fred's story as the focus of an episode of their new series The History Men, looking at historical events through the personal stories of those involved. Fred left a wife & daughter in the States when he was killed & his daughter, Nell, travels to Norfolk for his funeral & to meet the family she barely knows. She's also agreed to appear in the TV program. At the funeral, a mysterious man with long grey hair appears & soon after, Cassandra is attacked in the churchyard. The investigations into Fred's death lead Nelson to suspect that one of the Blackstocks was responsible for moving Fred's body from its original burial place to the cockpit of the buried plane. He also suspects that one of the family was responsible for Fred's murder.

I love this series. It's an absorbing combination of archaeology, history & police procedural but, above all, it's the characters that make the series so compelling. Ruth & Nelson had a brief relationship that resulted in their daughter, Kate. Nelson has stayed married to Michelle, the mother of his two daughters, although he feels a protective concern for Ruth & Kate. Ruth has had half-hearted relationships with a couple of men (Frank Barker, the American historian Ruth met in the last book, returns to Norfolk with the film crew in this one) but she loves Nelson, even though she knows he won't leave Michelle. Nelson's team - Dave Clough, DS Judy Johnson & newcomer Tim Heathfield - all play an important role in the story although it's their personal connection & loyalty to the team that is paramount. Clough is the rough diamond of the team, rescuing Cassandra Blackstock from her attacker, & surprised by his own involvement in the Blackstock story. Judy Johnson is now living with Cathbad, Ruth's Druid friend, & very pregnant with her second child. Tim is a good policemen but there's something reserved in his manner that hints at a secret that prevents him bonding with his colleagues completely.

I enjoyed all the personal subplots, especially the fact that Cathbad's predictions about future events, usually foolproof, prove to be way off the mark on a couple of crucial points. Ruth is such an appealing character. She is always doubting her abilities as a single mother & dithering about her relationship with Frank; resenting Nelson's picky comments & over-protectiveness, yet wanting him to be part of Kate's life, & her own. The Norfolk landscape is the other attraction. The loneliness of the marshes where Ruth lives & the coastal areas is described so evocatively. The Ghost Fields is a very satisfying mystery & although I had an inkling about one of the characters, there were still plenty of surprises a second murder & two attempted murders to keep me occupied until the last page. My only problem with Elly Griffiths' books is that I read them too quickly & now I have another year to wait for the next installment.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

A poem from another war this week. Hardy's Drummer Hodge is about a young Wessex soldier, killed during the Boer War in South Africa & buried under a foreign sky, with "strange stars amid the gloam". I thought of this poem because I read an article in the latest BBC History magazine about the Relief of Mafeking & that reminded me that, in Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain writes that the celebrations for the Relief were among her earliest memories (another coincidence - if you read the article on the Relief in History Today that I've linked to, you'll see another highlighted article, about Somerville College as a military hospital in WWI. Is it any wonder that I spend too much time on the internet when one thing leads to another like that?).

The mentions of the veldt, the kopje & the Karoo also reminded me of one of Vera & Roland's favourite books, The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner. I read this many years ago & remember being unimpressed by it. I probably read it in the afterglow of my first reading of Testament of Youth. I feel that I should read it again & see how I feel about it 35 years later.

They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined -- just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.

Young Hodge the drummer never knew --
Fresh from his Wessex home --
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.

Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Memoirs of a Professional Cad - George Sanders

The extra edition of Shiny New Books (which used to be called the Inbetweeny) is now available & I've reviewed George Sanders' Memoirs of a Professional Cad. I enjoyed reading it very much, especially after reading one of the mystery novels Sanders co-wrote, Crime on My Hands. Both books (as well as another thriller, Stranger At Home, which I've yet to read) have been reprinted by Dean Street Press.

Memoirs of a Professional Cad is a witty recollection of the life of one of the great Hollywood stars. Sanders comes across as a melancholy man with his pose of cynicism and his sardonic turn of phrase. His musings on everything from why actors want to win an Oscar to the advantages of fame (good tables and excellent service in restaurants seems to be the highlight) are told with panache but there’s an underlying sadness in the writer that left me feeling rather melancholy myself.

Other highlights of the extra edition of SNB include reviews of The Youngest Lady In Waiting by Mara Kay (one of my favourite childhood reads, now reprinted at last), The Ghost Fields by Elly Griffiths (just read this, one of my favourite crime series), Great Shakespearean Actors : Burbage to Branagh by Stanley Wells, & a tribute to Ruth Rendell.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The alternative was to stop buying books...

... or buy more bookcases & I was never going to stop buying books! The result is two beautiful Tasmanian oak bookcases. They're standing just inside the front door. My living area is open plan so they're in the place a hallway would be if I had a hallway.

I spent last weekend moving books which was fun but exhausting. I decided to begin my alphabetical sequence of books I've read in the new bookcases & to move my gardening & cookbooks to the bottom shelves so they're closer to the kitchen. This is the beginning,

& this is how it looked when I'd finished. There's room for books to be shelved from the tbr shelves as I read them.

A new home for my books by Jane Austen,

Vera Brittain &

the Brontës.

Moving the alphabetical sequence round was easy. The really difficult part was rearranging the tbr shelves. I have the tbr arranged by imprint or by subject. I like to keep my favourite publishers together - Persephone, Greyladies, Slightly Foxed, Virago, Hesperus, Canongate, Girls Gone By, Vintage, British Library Crime Classics, Folio Society, Oxford & Penguin Classics -  & then I have sections for literary criticism, biographies, letters & diaries & history (in chronological order by country, of course), general fiction & crime fiction.

The shelves had become a bit mixed as I desperately tried to fit a few more books on to already overcrowded shelves. In the end, I had to put some books on the floor in categories to see where I needed to make space.

This is where I left it when I stopped for a cup of coffee & a rethink.

In the end, I had to combine literary biographies, letters & diaries in one chronological sequence which gave me more room for general historical non-fiction & biographies in the bay on the far right. I have bays of fiction on either side of the non-fiction because, quite honestly, I was exhausted by the end of all that & needed a cup of tea. Maybe I'll move all the non-fiction together next weekend...

Here's the end result. It was a relief to go to work on Monday for a bit of a rest.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An Old Captivity - Nevil Shute

This is such an unusual book, a mixture of exploration of the far north, the minutiae of flying a seaplane & a possible reincarnation experience reaching back to the Vikings & the time of the Icelandic sagas.

An Old Captivity (cover picture from here) is the story of an archaeological expedition to Greenland. Pilot Donald Ross has spent time flying seaplanes in the far north of Canada. When he returns to England, he is offered a job flying a seaplane on a survey commissioned by Oxford don, Professor Lockwood. Lockwood's industrialist brother finances the expedition & Ross, once approved by the Lockwoods, is given carte blanche to order a plane & organize everything they'll need. He sees this job as a great opportunity, a stepping stone to more lucrative work. Professor Lockwood's prickly daughter Alix, is not so impressed with Ross. She suspects him of inflating the cost of the expedition & taking advantage of her unworldly father's enthusiasm for surveying the remote location. Ross is equally unimpressed with Alix & is disconcerted when Lockwood announces that his daughter will be accompanying them on the trip. A photographer, Jameson, will meet them at Greenland but, until then, Ross has to do all the work involved with flying & maintaining the plane.

The Lockwoods soon realise just how much work Ross has to do & regret that they hadn't insisted on an engineer taking Alix's place. The testy relationship between Ross & Alix gradually thaws as she begins to appreciate Ross's abilities & begins to help him as much as she can. After adventures including an unexpected night at a native settlement, they reach the town from which they'll set off on the survey to discover that Jameson has a broken leg & can't make the trip. Ross & Alix quickly learn to operate the camera & take the survey photographs.

Ross is a conscientious & methodical man. His constant worry about the work he has to do & the responsibility of the plane interfere with his sleep. He's given a bottle of sleeping tablets by a chemist in Reykjavik & he soon finds he can't sleep comfortably without them. On reaching the settlement in Greenland, they make camp at a location where earlier settlements had long since vanished. Their native workmen refuse to sleep at the camp & move to another place a mile away. All they will say is that they're afraid to sleep where the old people once lived. The survey work goes well, the weather is in their favour & Ross & Alix become closer as Ross realizes that he's fallen in love.

One night, Ross falls asleep after taking three sleeping tablets & falls into a coma that lasts 36 hours. Spooked by the tales of the old people, the Lockwoods manage to move Ross to the other camp &, gradually, he regains consciousness. He tells an amazing story about a dream he'd had while he was unconscious, a dream where he was a young Scotsman, Haki, taken as a slave by Viking raiders. He becomes a member of Leif Erickson's expedition to Greenland & then on to Vinland, the almost mythical settlement on the coast of North America. The dream is so vivid that Ross is constantly thinking of it. In the dream, he's accompanied by a young girl, Hekia, whom he equates with Alix. On the final leg of their journey home, they cross the Atlantic to Canada & then, down the coast of Massachusetts towards New York. Ross is suddenly convinced that he's found the place the Vikings called Wondersward &, when they land to have a look, he recognizes everything, including a place that was special to Haki & Hekia. Alix begins to wonder whether Ross's experience was just a dream or something more uncanny.

The story begins with one of Shute's framing stories, a device he often used. Ross is on a stranded train in Europe & tells his story to a fellow traveller, a psychologist. Shute must have forgotten how he began the story because we never return to the stranded train & the viewpoint of the story isn't just Ross's which it should be if he's telling his story as he experienced it. However, that didn't bother me too much. I enjoyed the story very much - the early scenes in Oxford with Ross & Alix irritating each other while Lockwood is completely focussed on his research without any idea of what such a trip entails. I love novels set in the 1930s, with all the assumptions about class & privilege. Alix Lockwood looks down on Ross & her middle class assumptions about him & his abilities were typical of the period. It certainly sets up the combative relationship between Alix & Ross very well & contrasts with the slow dawning of respect that she feels for him when she realises how naive she & her father had been. I also loved Donald's Aunt Janet, who had brought him up on her meagre earnings as a teacher. As always, Nevil Shute writes about the work of pilots & engineers with authority. Sometimes, I admit, the endless detail about fitting out a seaplane, filling the engine, changing the plugs, became a little mind-numbing, but the story was fascinating.

The scenes in the north reminded me a little of Michelle Paver's Dark Matter, a terrific ghost story that I listened to on audio read by Jeremy Northam. A young man is left as the only member of a scientific expedition to a remote station where something horrible happened in the past, something so dreadful that it left an enduring impression on the landscape & the atmosphere of the place. It was a story that left me with such a feeling of dread, I don't think I could have read (or listened) to it at night.  I listened to An Old Captivity on audio too, read by Cameron Stewart. He did a good job narrating the story & his male voices were fine but Alix's voice was dreadful. Still, the lure of the story kept me listening & I'm keen to go on reading more of Nevil Shute's novels.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sunday Poetry - Rupert Brooke & Vera Brittain

I finished rereading Testament of Youth last week so two more poems, both quoted in the book, before I move on to something else.

Vera quotes this sonnet by Rupert Brooke, Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, in the aftermath of Victor's death. He was blinded at Arras & Vera returned home from nursing in Malta with the idea of marrying Victor & looking after him. However, Victor died soon after she returned &, as she admits, such a marriage would have been a disaster for both of them.

Not with vain tears, when we're beyond the sun,
We'll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread
Those dusty high-roads of the aimless dead
Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run
Down some close-covered by-way of the air,
Some low sweet alley between wind and wind,
Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find
Some whispering ghost-forgotten nook, and there

Spend in pure converse our eternal day;
Think each in each, immediately wise;
Learn all we lacked before; hear, know, and say
What this tumultuous body now denies;
And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;
And see, no longer blinded by our eyes.



In 1919 Vera returned to Oxford to take up her studies. After four years away, she felt lonely & depressed. She was also suffering from what would today be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She had dreams of Edward & Roland returning or that they were still alive but so badly wounded that they didn't want to be seen. She also had hallucinations, imagining that her face was changing & that she was growing a beard, like a witch. This almost unbearably sad poem, Boar's Hill, October 1919, was written at this time & later published in the 1920 edition of Oxford Poetry.

Tall slender beech-trees, whispering, touched with fire.
Swaying at even beneath a desolate sky;
Smouldering embers aflame where the clouds hurry by
To the wind's desire.

Dark sombre woodlands, rain-drenched by the scattering shower,
Spindle that quivers and drops its dim berries to earth —
Mourning, perhaps, as I mourn here alone for the dearth
Of a happier hour.

Can you still see them, who always delighted to roam
Over the Hill where so often together we trod
When winds of wild autumn strewed summer's dead leaves on the sod,
Ere your steps turned home?