Thursday, November 29, 2012

A Nurse at the Front - Edith Appleton

I usually read something connected with WWI around November & this year, it's been the diaries of WWI nurse, Edith Appleton. Her diaries have been transcribed by her great-niece & nephews & were originally available on this fascinating website. As well as the diaries, the family have included a brief biography of Edie, letters from & about her & a complete index of everyone mentioned in the diaries. More information about Edie, her colleagues & the men she nursed is being unearthed thanks to the website & the wonders of the internet. An edition of the diaries has now been published by the Imperial War Museum, edited by Ruth Cowan.

Edie was born in Kent in 1877 & by the time war broke out in 1914 had been nursing for over 10 years. She volunteered for Queen Alexandra's Imperial Nursing Service & spent the next five years nursing in France & Flanders. She kept a diary throughout her war service but, unfortunately, not all of it has survived. Hopefully they may still turn up somewhere. The diaries we do have begin in April 1915 & there's another long gap between November 1916 & June 1918. However, what we do have gives a fascinating picture of wartime nursing on the Western Front & a portrait of the dedication & courage of Edie & all the other medical staff who witnessed the horrors of war.

I've often wondered how nurses managed to keep going day after day as they saw endless convoys of wounded & dying men & struggled to help them. In Edie's case, I believe it was her love of nature & her determination to take advantage of any opportunity of getting away from the hospital in her precious time off. Wherever Edie is stationed, she swims, walks or goes for long drives alone or with her colleagues. she's interested in everything & everyone she meets.

Maxey, Truslove & I had a half day, so we walked to Bénouville in the rain and picked primroses that were hanging from the banks in yellow tufts. At Bénouville, we peeped into the church and found service in progress - so went to the café for tea of bloaters, boiled eggs, toast and tea. After tea the old woman showed us her old china and pewter. Such a nice little woman - her husband is away at the war and she was busy making herself a coat out of an old one of his. She turned the stuff and piped it with black velvet and made a strap for the waits and sleeves - very smart. March 20, 1916.

Much of Edie's work consisted of organization, routine & hard graft. She worked in Casualty Clearing Stations, mobile units that operated close to the Front & ministered to men who were brought by ambulance direct from the battlefield. Many were dead or dying by the time they arrived. They were all dirty, in pain & often in shock. Conditions & equipment were basic & often the men were on stretchers on the floor. The work could be dangerous too as troop movements were often sudden & the CCS could be ordered to move very quickly, taking wounded men with them. At other times, they were shelled by the enemy but kept working through the bombardment. Several times, staff were injured by shells & shrapnel. Once the emergency treatment was given, the men were put on convoys & sent by train and boat back to England.

Edie never knew from one day to the next how many convoys might arrive. Sometimes they were prepared for a great influx of wounded & nobody came. Other times, the wards were overflowing & the staff worked 20 hour shifts to tend to them all. If any nurses were off sick, everyone else just worked harder & longer. Sometimes it's not the demands of the war but of politics & PR that determined the workload.

We should have been taking in today, but after getting only a few ambulance-loads we were stopped - instead No 2 was taking in. This afternoon I heard why - the King is coming on Wednesday and will be taken to No 2 as it is the senior casualty clearance station here and they want to have plenty of patients in when he comes. October 25, 1915

Apart from Royal visits, the work went on. In 1918, Edie was transferred to no 3 General Hospital at Le Tréport. The hospital was in a large hotel on the coast so no more tents but the work was just as dispiriting at times.

My ward is rather a sad place just now - so full of extremely badly wounded. There is plenty of gas-gangrene and two fractured spines dying in a room which is difficult to ventilate. One feels the horrible smell in one's throat and nose all the time. Poor old things! One died yesterday - an Australian. His leg was very gangrenous and had to be taken off high up, but it was too far gone. His constant cry was to get up and go out - that he was quite all right - then about half an hour before he died he settled down and said 'I'm done. I'm dying fast.' And he was quite right. August 16, 1918

After the war, Edie was demobbed in 1919. She returned to nursing in England for a time. She & her sister bought a house on the Isle of Wight where they kept chickens & grew vegetables. Several of their siblings made their home with them. Edie married when she was 49. Her husband, Jack, was her sister's stepson & 10 years her junior. He died after only 10 years of marriage & Edie died at the age of 80 in 1958.

Edie's diary is an invaluable record of nursing in WWI. Her good humour, efficiency & dedication must have made her a valuable part of the team at all her postings. I've just finished reading Virginia Nicholson's book about women in WWII, Millions Like Us. Virginia Nicholson notes that almost all the women she interviewed, when asked why they had joined up or how they coped with the privations of war, said "We just got on with it." I think Edie's response would have been the same. She was trained to do an important job & she did it magnificently. How lucky we are to be able to read her diaries & honour her memory.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Blood Never Dies - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Bill Slider is one of my favourite fictional detectives so I was pleased to see Blood Never Dies arrive on my desk. As always, Slider is aided by his team, Jim Atherton, Norma Swilley, Colin Hollis & cheery pathologist Freddie Cameron. He's also helped by his boss, malaprop-prone D S Porson, whose tangled aphorisms always make me smile. We also catch up with Bill's wife, Joanna, who's facing a dilemma when she's offered a new job, his father, & young son, George.

This book has the most elaborate plot I've come across in a crime novel for some time. Slider is called out to a case of suicide when Hollis thinks that something is not quite right. Slider agrees as the dead man left no note & all his personal possessions seem to be missing. The method was also unusual. The man's throat had been cut but the angle is wrong & the direction, especially when they discover that he was left-handed. He was living in a dingy room whose dodgy landlord wasn't too fussy about his tenants as long as they paid the rent so no help there.

Slider's first task is to identify the body. His suspicions are roused when he discovers that the man  called himself Robin Williams & Mike Hordern. By the time he discovers another pseudonym, Colin Redgrave, he knows there's more to this death than he first thought. Once he discovers the real name of the victim & begins to understand what he was doing in the last months of his life, the case becomes more complex & confusing. Then, other deaths that looked like suicide or accident start to connect with the first one & the implications of the case start to encompass other parts of the police force. Bill has to solve the case quickly or risk losing control of it altogether.

Blood Never Dies is an excellent example of a police procedural that's more than just a puzzle to be solved. The plot is complicated & I had no hope of working out what was going on & that's just how I like it. A good mystery has me reading so fast that I don't have time to stop & try to work things out. Slider & his team solve the case using old-fashioned legwork & a little intuition. The interplay between the coppers is amusingly snappy but Bill is such a decent man that the focus is always on the victim & solving the case. This is a perfect book for anyone who enjoys a traditional murder mystery & if you like it, there are 14 earlier books to track down.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

When I set out for Lyonnesse was written in 1870 & it has the feeling of a ballad of olden times. Hardy's county of Wessex used the geography of southern England but he replaced a lot of the actual place names with imaginary ones. Lyonnesse is his name for the Isles of Scilly. This is a more optimistic poem than last week's choice and although we don't know what happened to the speaker on his visit to Lyonnesse, it obviously made him very happy.

When I set out for Lyonnesse,
A hundred miles away,
The rime was on the spray,
And starlight lit my lonesomeness
When I set out for Lyonnesse
A hundred miles away.

What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there
No prophet durst declare,
Nor did the wisest wizard guess
What would bechance at Lyonnesse
While I should sojourn there.

When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes,
All marked with mute surmise
My radiance rare and fathomless,
When I came back from Lyonnesse
With magic in my eyes! 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Linda Gillard's House of Silence now available as a paperback

One of my Top 10 books of last year, Linda Gillard's House of Silence, has just been released as a paperback, available from Amazon. Linda has been very successful as both a traditionally published writer & an indie author. Over the past year her e-books, House of Silence, Untying the Knot & The Glass Guardian, have sold thousands of copies. Linda's success just goes to show that the major publishers don't always know what will sell. Linda's commitment to writing the books she wanted to write & then getting out there & selling them, helped along by fantastic word of mouth & positive reviews, has been well-rewarded. Now, for all those readers who have been longing to read Linda's books but didn't have a Kindle, the first of Linda's e-books is now available in paperback. The story of how Linda published House of Silence herself as an e-book is here. And here's my review of House of Silence,

Gwen Rowland is an independent, self-contained young woman in her mid twenties. Christened Guinevere by her drug-addicted mother because she was conceived at Glastonbury, Gwen’s life has deliberately taken the opposite track to that of her mother, aunts & uncles, all now dead from drink, drugs & misadventure. Gwen studied art, fell in love with textiles & works as a wardrobe assistant on film & TV sets. While working on a Regency drama, she meets Alfie Donovan, an actor who seems strangely familiar. Alfie’s childhood has been just as dysfunctional as Gwen’s. His mother, Rae Holbrooke, is the author of the wildly successful series of children’s books, Tom Dickon Harry. Alfie had been the inspiration for the boy in the books, a much-loved son after the birth of four daughters. A documentary on his mother’s work when he was young had just augmented the legend & led to a distance, both emotional & physical, between Alfie & his family. He only goes home, reluctantly, for Christmas.

Alfie & Gwen’s friendship becomes a relationship &, when Gwen asks if they’ll spend Christmas together, Alfie reluctantly invites her to his family home, Creake Hall. Gwen is entranced by Creake Hall, an Elizabethan mansion kept going by Viv & Hattie, Alfie’s two sisters who still live at home. They care for their mother, Rae, who has had a breakdown & now rarely leaves her room. Viv is in her fifties, works hard in the house & the garden. She seems to have no inner life at all, never having had a relationship of her own. Hattie has also been damaged by her past. She’s a little fey, a little fragile, but she is a wonderful seamstress & makes gorgeous quilts, using vintage fabrics from the trunks & wardrobes of Creake Hall. This forms a bond between Gwen & Hattie when they meet. Viv tries to explain this odd family to Gwen,

Well, I think all you really need to know about us as a family, Gwen, is that we’re... fragmented. We aren’t close. Never have been, never will be. Oh, I’m fond of Hattie, but she’s only a half-sister and I’m old enough to be her mother. Ours is a strange relationship... We’re an odd bunch of siblings altogether! The only thing we have in common is Rae. Our ambivalence towards her. And our concern for her... Alfie comes to see her once a year and we’re all very grateful to him for that. It keeps Rae going. He’s her obsession now – has been since the last breakdown. He’s her precious son. But she was never a mother to him. Never a proper mother to any of us, if truth be told.

Gwen becomes uneasy when she starts to realise that Alfie hasn’t told her the truth about his background. She notices things. The photo of a boy playing cricket left-handed when Alfie is right-handed. The scraps of letters she finds in Hattie’s scraps bag that Alfie supposedly wrote home from school. The details don’t add up & Alfie’s story becomes just one of the secrets hidden in the past of this family & this house.

Gwen’s life is also shaken by her meeting with Marek. Marek is working as the Holbrooke’s gardener. He’s known as Tyler because Rae always calls the gardener Tyler, just as the dogs are always Harris & Lewis, although the original Harris & Lewis died years before. Gwen is immediately attracted to Marek, a man with secrets of his own. Half-Polish, half-Scottish, Marek practiced as a psychiatrist until five years ago when he left his profession & became a gardener. Marek is strong, sensitive & he plays the cello like an angel. He’s also a good listener, the product of his former life as a therapist,

‘I’m not wise,’ he replied, ‘just a people-watcher. If you watch enough people and watch them carefully, patterns emerge. From those patterns you can glean a few truths about human behaviour. It’s not wisdom, just observation. So, no, it’s not exhausting, it’s fascinating. Sometimes satisfying. I don’t do it intentionally any more. In fact, my intention is not to do it, but it still happens. It’s who I am. What I am.’

Linda Gillard’s heroes are always gorgeous, sexy & irresistible. I’ve read all her novels & loved all her heroes but Marek is very special. He can even make old, grey pyjamas sexy. As Gwen & Marek fall into bed & begin to fall in love, Gwen realises that she has never really known Alfie at all. Gwen becomes the catalyst that exposes the lies & deceit at the heart of the Holbrooke family.

I think Linda Gillard is a wonderful writer of contemporary fiction. I’ve known Linda for several years now. We were both members of the same online reading group for a while & we’ve kept in touch via email ever since, so this is my disclaimer! House of Silence is a compulsively readable book. It’s a compelling story of family secrets & lies, set in a crumbling Elizabethan mansion at Christmas in the depths of a freezing Norfolk winter. The heroine is smart, independent & compassionate. The hero is, quite frankly, gorgeous. You would think that publishers would be falling over themselves to publish this book. Well, they’re not.

Linda Gillard has published three other novels. Emotional Geology & A Lifetime Burning were published by Transita & Star Gazing by Piatkus. All three novels are award winners (Star Gazing was shortlisted for the Romance Writers Association award for Best Romantic Novel in 2009) but Linda has been trying to get House of Silence published for over two years. So, Linda decided to take advantage of the move towards e-books & e-publish. 

House of Silence has just been released exclusively as an e-book for the Kindle through Amazon. The reasons for Linda’s decision to publish in this way will be revealed tomorrow in a special guest blog that Linda has written for I Prefer Reading. In the meantime, have a look at Linda’s website & at the Amazon US listing for House of Silence (if you're anywhere in the world except the UK). If you're in the UK, you can buy House of Silence at Amazon UK. If you have a Kindle or can read Kindle e-books on your e-reader or PC, please have a look at Linda's book on Amazon.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Suspicious Minds - Martin Edwards

Harry Devlin is a Liverpool lawyer who we first met in All the Lonely People. In that book, Harry's estranged wife, Liz, was murdered &, finding himself a suspect, he decides to do a little investigating of his own to discover the killer. In Suspicious Minds, Harry is still mourning Liz & still getting too involved in his clients' problems.

Jack Stirrup is a businessman who made a fortune in the wine business. His wife, Alison, has disappeared & the police suspect that Jack had something to do with it. Alison's mother, Doreen, has always hated Jack & she's pushing the police to arrest him even though there's no evidence to suggest that Alison is dead. Jack's daughter from his first marriage, Claire, is a sulky teenager who disliked her stepmother & is driving her father crazy with her relationship with law student Peter Kuiper. Jack disapproves of Kuiper but his disapproval only makes Claire more determined to pursue the relationship. Jack isn't short of enemies, including ex-employee Trevor Morgan, sacked for harassing the female staff.

Then there's the Beast. A series of attacks on young, blonde women has everyone worried. The attacks have escalated from indecent assault to rape. Has blonde Alison become the Beast's latest victim? Harry can't be sure that Jack wasn't involved in Alison's disappearance & he does what he can to find out where Alison is. But, when Claire goes missing & is then found murdered, her body surrounded by red roses, the case becomes much more complicated.

I'm so pleased that the Harry Devlin series is available again. Harry is a flawed but sympathetic character. The suspicious minds of the title include Harry himself as he tentatively pursues a relationship with barrister Valerie Kaiwar & finds himself unsure of her feelings & jealous of her close friendship with a colleague. Harry is a fair, honest lawyer who does his best for his clients but isn't always able to sort out his own life. There's a melancholy about Harry that's very appealing.

The Liverpool setting is gritty & I love the details of Harry's office life with incompetent & unhelpful staff & his calm, unflappable partner, Joe Crusoe. The pace is snappy & the plot is as tangled as any crime fan could wish. I also love the fact that the books are about 200 pages long. I'm not a fan of very long mystery novels. I think the ideal length for a mystery is 200-250 pages, probably because I enjoy reading the Golden Age novelists who rarely wrote long novels. Martin Edwards improves on a lot of the writers of that period though because he values character & place as much as plot & puzzle. I'm so pleased that I have five more novels in the series to read.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues - Trisha Ashley

Tansy Poole lives in London with her fiance, Justin, but her heart lies in the village of Sticklepond with her great-aunt Nan who has been more of a mother to Tansy than her own mother had ever been. Tansy's relationship with Justin has become miserable. Tansy wants to get married & have children. Justin keeps putting off the wedding & wanting her to lose weight & dress more conservatively. Suddenly he wants to change the things that make Tansy who she really is. His mother is also a nightmare who spends far to much time in their flat tidying up & throwing away Tansy's belongings. Tansy writes & illustrates children's books but her heart's desire is to use her passion for shoes & weddings to make a living.

Aunt Nan has been running the family shoe shop in Sticklepond forever but now that her health is failing, Tansy spends more time with her & discovers that Nan is going to leave her the shop. Her plan to move to Sticklepond to be with Nan is made easier by her realisation that Justin isn't going to make a commitment & if she wants to have children, she needs to make some difficult decisions.

After Nan's death, Tansy & her best friend, Bella, open Cinderella's Shoes, a fantasy of a bridal shop specialising in vintage & over-the-top fairytale shoes for brides. The new shop is a lot of hard work & Tansy's equilibrium isn't helped by the discovery that her new next door neighbour is Ivo Hawksley, Shakespearian actor & her first love. Ivo has retreated to Sticklepond after the tragic death of his wife in an accident & he spends his time hacking away at the overgrown garden & playing mournful classical music in the evenings. He's also reading his wife's diaries which leads him to reassess their relationship & what he wants to do in the future.

Tansy & Ivo's combative relationship (he objects to her crowing cockerel, her dog attacking his cat & the doorbell of the shop playing Here Comes the Bride very loudly. She objects to his mournful music, his melodramatic habit of quoting Shakespeare every time they meet & the fact that he dumped her many years ago) gradually turns to friendship. Ivo takes Tansy's dog, Flash, for evening walks & she tries to encourage him to eat by pressing delicious food parcels on him. Justin, however, isn't taking his dismissal quietly & wants to move north to be closer to Tansy, much to her horror. Tansy's two stepsisters (just as horrible as Cinderella's) do all they can to disrupt her life & even Aunt Nan has a few surprises from beyond the grave. Add Bella's fraught relationship with her parents & budding romance with Neil & a proposal to build a retail park near the village that would threaten local businesses & you have a funny, romantic story that's a lovely way to spend a lazy afternoon.

Trisha Ashley's Sticklepond novels have an enthusiastic following & in Chocolate Shoes & Wedding Blues we meet several characters from the previous books, A Winter's Tale & Chocolate Wishes. I've also enjoyed her Christmas novels, The Twelve Days of Christmas & The Magic of Christmas. All Trisha's books have a fairytale flavour to them. The villagers of Sticklepond are an eccentric lot but they're a real community with shared values & a shared vision of the future of the village. Tansy, like many of Trisha's heroines is a wonderful cook & spends what little time she has left over from running the shop baking all sorts of goodies as well as brewing the mysterious Meddyg, a mead-like drink from a secret family recipe that can cure anything from melancholy to the plague. This is a delightful book full of humour, romance & food. What more could you ask for?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Those books I didn't get to in 2011.

Remember this post? At the end of last year I listed some of the books I bought last year that I was sure I would love if only I'd actually gotten around to reading them. The other day I thought I should have a look & see if I had managed to read any of them this year or whether they'd been overrun by the new arrivals. Surprisingly I didn't do too badly. Here's the list, with links to the posts about the books I read.

Helen - Maria Edgeworth
Patronage - Maria Edgeworth
Between the Acts - Virginia Woolf
Westwood by Stella Gibbons
Life Among the Savages - Shirley Jackson
No Surrender - Constance Maud
Millions Like Us - Virginia Nicholson
Georgette Heyer - Jennifer Kloester
Now All Roads Lead to France - Matthew Hollis

I read half of Life Among the Savages before throwing it (gently) aside. I know Simon loved it but I just didn't like the narrator's voice. Maybe it was the wrong day to read it. A very hot day at the beginning of the year when I didn't have much patience with anything so I may go back to it one day & try again.

Having read one Maria Edgeworth novel this year I'm not sure when I'll get to Patronage. The other three books have now left the tbr shelves & are sitting on the desk. I would love to read them all before the end of the year. Then I can write another post about this year's books that arrived in a glow of enthusiasm but didn't get any further than the tbr shelves.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Thomas Hardy

For the next few weeks I'll be featuring the poetry of Thomas Hardy in Sunday Poetry. He's always been one of my favourite authors of novels & poetry. I love that melancholy streak in his writing even though sometimes, as in Jude the Obscure, it becomes a little overwhelming. I'll never forget reading the crucial scene of despair in that novel (I won't describe it for fear of spoilers but if you've read the novel, you know the scene I mean, I'm sure). I was sitting on a train, coming home from university, on a gloomy, wet evening in the middle of winter. Maybe that was more appropriate than reading it on a gloriously sunny day but it was so overwhelmingly sad. Mostly I enjoy Hardy's realistic but grim view of human nature & the workings of Fate but Jude is such a sad book. I would like to reread it one day & see if I can find any optimism in it the second time around.

This week's poem is called He Fears His Good Fortune, which reminded me of Jude & of Hardy's whole outlook on life, really. It was published in his collection, Moments of Vision, in 1917.

There was a glorious time
At an epoch of my prime;
Mornings beryl-bespread,
And evenings golden-red;
Nothing gray:
And in my heart I said,
"However this chanced to be,
It is too full for me,
Too rare, too rapturous, rash,
Its spell must close with a crash
Some day!"

The radiance went on
Anon and yet anon,
And sweetness fell around
Like manna on the ground.
"I've no claim,"
Said I, "to be thus crowned:
I am not worthy this:-
Must it not go amiss? -
Well . . . let the end foreseen
Come duly!--I am serene."
--And it came.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

By the Book - Ramona Koval

What is the right moment to read a book? Is it when the book reflects the story of our own lives, so that we recognise the characters and what happens to them? Or is it before our own story takes the path of characters? Do we read to show us how to avoid the events within? Has a book read at the right time saved any of us from certain doom?

I think this quote sums up the way Ramona Koval reads & why she reads. I think it's probably true of everyone who can't imagine a life without books.

Ramona Koval is a well-respected & much-loved broadcaster & journalist. For many years she hosted Books & Writing, a weekly radio show about all aspects of literature. She has also interviewed hundreds of authors at writer's festivals from Melbourne to Edinburgh & Toronto. Unfortunately her radio career came to an abrupt end last year after some changes at the ABC but she has now written a book about her love of reading & the kinds of books she reads.

Koval grew up in Melbourne in the 50s & 60s, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors who had lived in Paris after the war before emigrating to Australia. Both her parents were the only survivors of their families & their marriage wasn't always a happy one. They didn't talk about their experiences & had very little in common. Ramona's mother was a voracious reader who already knew several languages & taught herself English through her reading. Ramona was encouraged to read but she never discussed her reading with her mother & now sees that as a lost opportunity to know her mother better.

Ramona was a good student & had her sights set on a scientific career until, as she puts it, she married her own Charles Bovary & found herself married & pregnant at the age of 20. All her reading of Flaubert, Mary McCarthy's The Group & Betty Friedan hadn't made her any wiser. Eventually she began a career in radio, first science journalism with the Marie Curiosity Show & eventually Books & Writing on Radio National.

This book is structured around Koval's life & the books she was reading at each stage. So she moves from Enid Blyton to Colette & Simone de Beauvoir. She reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kafka & George Orwell. A fascination with anthropology leads to Margaret Mead & then the books debunking Mead's theories. There are the books she reads about Poland to try to understand more about her parents' early lives. Sometimes the memory of a book or a story leads to the recollection of an interview with the writer as when she meets Grace Paley & Oliver Sacks. I would have liked more about the writers Koval has interviewed although I realise this isn't that kind of book. There are already a couple of collections of interviews, Speaking Volumes & Tasting Life Twice, that were published some time ago. What I enjoyed here was the more informal recollections & Koval's own recollections of reading the work & then meeting the author. As an interviewer she is always intent on keeping the spotlight on her subject.

My favourite chapter, probably because I share the obsession, was about the memoirs of polar explorers. She reads Scott, Shackleton, Cherry Apsley-Garrard. She shares my fascination with the efforts of these men, venturing into the unknown in inadequate clothing & risking their lives for a handful of penguin eggs. She wants to know what they read during the long polar nights & discovers their love of poetry, reference books to settle arguments & cookbooks to feed their fantasies when all they had to eat was seal meat & blubber.

By the Book is a walk through the life & library of an intelligent, inquiring woman. I know Ramona Koval's voice so well that I could hear her voice as I read & I enjoyed learning about her life as well as about the books she's read. I could only agree when she wrote, "A library is a kind of autobiography of interests, fads and life stages."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Anglo-Saxon Art - Leslie Webster

This is a beautifully-produced book on a fascinating subject. I've been interested in the Anglo-Saxons ever since I first read about the Sutton Hoo ship burial. The gold & garnets, the mix of Christian & pagan objects, that helmet with the distinctive, mustachioed face looking back at me, were all captivating. Since then I've read about the Sutton Hoo dig & many other archaeological discoveries, all of them adding to our knowledge of this period. The glorious Staffordshire Hoard, discovered only a few years ago, has added to our knowledge & posed more questions at the same time.

The Anglo-Saxon period begins in the 5th century, after the end of Roman occupation of Britannia & ends with the Norman Conquest of 1066. Leslie Webster's book is divided into thematic chapters describing the different influences from Europe & beyond that created the distinctive style known as Anglo-Saxon. The Germanic tribes who settled in Britain after the Romans, the Christian missionaries sent by Pope Gregory in 597, the Celtic Christianity of Iona & Lindisfarne, the trading routes bringing influences from eastern Europe & Byzantium & the Vikings & other Scandinavian raiders & settlers.

What we think of as the characteristic features of Anglo-Saxon art is dependent on what has survived. This seems an obvious point but it's worth making as Leslie Webster does in her book. What has survived is only a fraction of what must have originally existed. If you think about the Viking invasions, the religious upheavals, the periods when Anglo-Saxon manuscripts & artwork wasn't valued, the random events such as fires & floods where so much was destroyed, it's amazing that we have as much as we do. Sometimes objects survived in Europe because they were taken there by missionaries from England. Sometimes, as with the Staffordshire Hoard, objects were buried & only rediscovered centuries later. Sometimes, the objects were grave goods. Imagine how much more could still be buried, waiting for rediscovery.

I wish I could show you every page of this book. There are over 200 illustrations in a book of just over 200pp. Almost every object described in the text is illustrated. There is magnificent gold & garnet jewellery, illuminated manuscripts decorated with interlace & animals in the initials, carved ivory caskets, stone crosses, intricate metalwork & embroidery like the Bayeux Tapestry. Webster describes the objects in detail, explaining the symbolism & imagery used & comparing it to other objects of the same period & style. Looking at the manuscripts, personal possessions & jewellery of the Anglo-Saxons is an excellent way to begin to understand the people.Webster weaves enough history into her narrative to set the scene but the focus is always on the objects. All the iconic objects are here from the Sutton Hoo helmet to the Alfred Jewel, the Lindisfarne Gospels, & the Franks Casket. There are also many objects that were new to me. This is a beautiful book written by someone who knows her subject intimately & can convey her knowledge easily.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Back to Work

Back to work this morning after a lovely week off. The tomatoes, basil & lettuce have been planted, the vegie garden mulched, the Christmas cake made & lots of reading, walking & playing with the cats has been done. A perfect holiday, in fact.

At one point last week, I had four books on the go, which is a lot, even for me. I reread Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers & then realised that it's less than a year since I last reread it. I finished two other books that I'll be reviewing later this week. And I've been dipping into Persephone no 100, The Persephone Book of Short Stories. This is a celebratory collection of short stories because one of  the specialties of Persephone Books is the short story collection. About a third of these stories have been published in short story collections in the Persephone collection, another third have featured in the Persephone Quarterly & Biannual & the rest are stories by authors not published by Persephone. The authors include Persephone favourites Dorothy Whipple, E M Delafield, Mollie Panter-Downes & Dorothy Canfield Fisher. The "new" authors include several who would be perfect for Persephone's list in the future - Phyllis Bentley, Malachi Whitaker & Helen Hull (who is about to become a Persephone author when her book, Heat Lightning, is published next year).

Two of my favourite short stories are in the collection. Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes is the title story of the WWII short story collection that was one of Persephone's early successes. I love this poignant story of a woman who is a mistress, not a wife. She has met her lover every Thursday night but when war breaks out & he's posted overseas, she realises that she will have no right to be told if he's wounded or killed. Roman Fever by Edith Wharton is a story of secrets & misunderstandings between two women who meet again after many years on a visit to Rome. It's a beautifully subtle story with an ending that you will never forget. I've read it many times & I'm always moved by the last few lines.

I've bought several cookbooks lately & this lovely book about baking was one of them. I couldn't wait to try a recipe so I chose the Marbled Chocolate Crumble Cake.

Whether it looks like the picture in the book will have to wait until morning tea time when I see if I followed Rachel's directions properly or overdid the swirling! The recipe called for two bowls of cake batter, one plain & one chocolate. Spoonfuls of each mixture are placed in the tin & then it's swirled together with a skewer to give a marbled effect when it's cut. It's so easy to give the mixture one more swirl but it looks alright from the outside. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Remembrance Day

A quiet, reflective poem for Remembrance Day. Futility by Wilfred Owen. Lest We Forget.

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved—still warm—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Time of Women - Elena Chizhova

Elena Chizhova's novel, The Time of Women, won the Russian Booker Prize so when Glagoslav Publications offered me a review copy, I was definitely interested. It's the story of a group of women living together in mid 20th century Moscow.

Antonina is a single mother. She & her daughter, Suzanna, live in a communal apartment with three older women who become Suzanna's "grannies". Of course, they rename Suzanna Sofia & have her secretly baptized. Antonina was lucky to find such a home. She works in a factory & has told the authorities that her daughter is at home with her own mother. She also has to keep secret the fact that Sofia is mute. If her disability was discovered, she would be put into an institution.

The grannies - Glikeria, Yevdokia & Ariadna - love Sofia & soon get used to asking her questions & answering them themselves. As Sofia grows up, she shows talent in her drawings but she is still mute. Through the grannies she learns the history of the Soviet Union & the times before the Revolution. The hard times of war, famine & starvation. The many ways in which the grannies lost their husbands & children until they are now alone except for each other.

Antonina is also essentially alone & struggling to keep food on the table for herself, Sofia & the grannies. The mysterious man who fathered her daughter left her life long ago & Sofia & the grannies are her only family. There's a lot of fascinating detail about life in Soviet times, from the intrusiveness of the factory supervisors who have the right to inquire into the worker's personal lives & report any misdemeanors to the amount of buckwheat flour Antonina can claim as a mother. There are the struggles to afford material to make a dress or buy a TV. When Antonina becomes ill, the grannies realise that they will lose Sofia if her mother dies. She will be sent to an orphanage. They decide that what Sofia needs is a stepfather but that will inevitably bring the time of the women to an end.

The narrative moves from one character to another as we learn the stories of the grannies & watch them scrimping & maneuvering to make ends meet. Sofia's viewpoint is the most fascinating as she observes everything, understands some of what she observes & draws pictures to communicate her thoughts. The final section of the books gives us Sofia's voice as she looks back on her childhood & tells of the grannies as they grew older & more dependent on her. The book has been adapted for the stage in Russia & has been a bestseller. The Time of Women is a fascinating look at Soviet society.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Necessary End - Hazel Holt

Hazel Holt is one of my favourite writers of traditional English crime. Her books are set in Taviscombe on England's south coast, & the town is a perfect setting for mystery & murder. Our detective is Sheila Malory, a retired teacher; a widow with a married son & much loved granddaughter. Sheila also has two extremely spoilt pets; a dog, Tris and a Siamese cat, Foss. I can always empathise with Sheila as she opens yet another can of food to tempt fussy Foss or gives up & cooks some chicken for him instead.

Sheila is a kind woman with a wide circle of friends & very involved in her community. Her kind nature also leads her to be imposed upon & when her friend, Monica, asks her to help out at a local charity shop while she's away for a few weeks, Sheila reluctantly agrees. Her best friend Rosemary, who would never allow herself to be imposed upon, thinks she's mad but Sheila has promised to help & is reluctant to let Monica down. The shop is run by Desmond Barlow, a bossy, unpleasant man who completely dominates his wife, Wendy, who also works in the shop. Newcomer Norma Stanley has aspirations to take over the shop as she has every other committee she's joined since she & her quiet husband, Marcus, arrived in Taviscombe. The other women working in the shop observe the clash of wills & try to keep the peace while dodging Norma's superior remarks & Desmond's sarcasm.

It's no real surprise when Desmond is discovered dead in the shop one morning, stabbed with a knife that was last used to open a box of donations. The till had also been robbed so the motive for the murder isn't straightforward. Apart from Norma & Wendy, there are several suspects. His son, John, had been bullied into a university course he hated & wanted to do something completely different. He had supposedly left for college before the murder but is it true? Wendy seems completely unmoved by her husband's murder. She immediately makes plans to move to Birmingham to be near John & adopts a stray cat that Desmond had hated. There's also the mysterious man who was seen talking to Desmond several times in the weeks leading up to the murder. Or was it whoever stole the money from the till?

Sheila is confused by Wendy's attitude & surprised to discover that several people had been seen entering the back of the shop on the night of the murder. Sheila's knowledge of human nature & her sympathetic manner enable her to discover a lot about the main suspects & her investigations take in the past lives of everyone involved to untangle the events that led to the murder.

I always enjoy Hazel Holt's books. Sheila is a lovely character. Warm & sympathetic but also determined to get to the truth. I've read the whole series over the years & I especially enjoyed the early books where Sheila was still writing & reviewing in her specialty, 19th century literature, particularly the work of Charlotte M Yonge. Still, there's always the animals & her best friend, Rosemary. There's also my favourite character, Rosemary's formidable mother, who usually manages to enlighten Sheila on some aspect of the case usually through her remarkable memory of local gossip stretching back over 50 years. This lovely series is still in print as paperbacks or ebooks & it's perfect for lovers of the traditional English mystery.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The first days of summer

It's been a mild spring so far this year but yesterday was a very warm day & by mid-afternoon, finding a cool spot was a priority. Phoebe lay on the floorboards near the study.

Lucky prefers the cool laundry tiles. It's always difficult to get a good photo of Lucky. She usually winds herself around my legs or walks away as soon as I bring out the camera.

Phoebe isn't shy at all. Usually she's somewhere spectacular, like halfway up the tree in the front garden,

or somewhere she shouldn't be, like the laundry basket full of clean towels that I hadn't had time to fold & put away.

The warm weather isn't going to last. Rain is predicted for tomorrow afternoon & cooler temperatures for the rest of the week which will suit us all.
I've taken the opportunity of a public holiday tomorrow (Melbourne Cup Day) & my usual rostered day off on Friday to take the rest of the week off as well. I plan to get the tomatoes, basil & lettuce planted, look around for a new desk for the study & do lots of reading. A lovely break before the downhill run to Christmas.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Poetry - Edward Thomas

One of the enduring images of WWI is the rain & mud of the trenches in France & Flanders. This poem by Edward Thomas (picture from here) isn't set in the trenches but it evokes that same feeling of desolation & loneliness. How many men & women must have lain awake in huts or tents or dugouts thinking of the possibility of their own death & hoping that their loved ones were safe?

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Country Plot - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

Jenna Freemont has had a terrible Monday. She loses her job as a feature writer & arrives home to find her boyfriend, Patrick, in bed with another woman. Jenna packs up her things & goes to stay with her brother & his family. Suddenly she finds herself without a job or a home & heartbroken into the bargain. Jenna's family decide she needs to find a job that's like a holiday & she is persuaded to spend a few weeks with a distant relation, Kitty Everest. Kitty lives in an almost stately home, Holtby House, in the country. She's a widow, living on a limited income & reluctantly planning to sell the house because she can't afford the upkeep. Jenna's job is to help catalogue the contents & get the place ready for sale.

Jenna & Kitty hit it off immediately & Jenna becomes determined to find a way to allow Kitty to stay in her home. Kitty's godson, Alexander (known as Xander), also lives in the village & makes a living restoring furniture. He's immediately suspicious of Jenna's motives & his reception is frosty. Xander's girlfriend, Caroline, known to Jenna as the Ice Queen, is also hostile to Jenna, though whether because she cares about Kitty, is jealous of Xander or for some other motive, isn't clear. Caroline is very keen to foster Jenna's relationship with her young step-brother Harry which makes everyone suspicious.

Jenna soon settles in & relaxes into village life - walking with the dogs, riding with Xander whose attitude veers between hostility & cautious friendship, & meeting the locals. Jenna's idea for saving Kitty's home involves a lot of work & commitment from everyone & her yearnings for Patrick & London life begin to fade away.

Country Plot is a lovely, romantic book for lovers of English country novels. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles is one of my favourite contemporary writers. I love her Bill Slider mysteries (the newest book, Blood Never Dies, has just been published) & I've also read several of her stand alone romantic novels. There are definite echoes of Pride & Prejudice in the relationship between Jenna & Xander (his girlfriend's surname could easily be Bingley rather than Russell) & their friendship grows gradually in spite of misunderstandings. The supporting characters are also a lot of fun. The garrulous Mad Enderby at the farm shop, Bill, Kitty's loyal gardener & tenant & his wife, Fatty & the dogs, Watch & Barney. If you're a fan of Katie Fforde or Jill Mansell, I think you'd enjoy Country Plot.