Weekly Wrap-Up

I am going to pinch an idea from Adam’s Bibliomania (sorry, but I really like this!) and start doing a weekly wrap-up. I want to keep in touch with my blog, so to speak, and I just know that come September when I will be finding my feet in my new job and attempting to get to grips with the vast differences between teacher training and being a full time teacher, I probably won’t be reading as much, or as quickly as usual, but I don’t want to neglect my blog. Hopefully I will be able to keep up with a weekly update; I am sure I will, and as I haven’t assigned a particular day this should be relatively easy (famous last words).

So this week the British weather has been glorious! I can’t quite believe it was only a week ago that it was pouring with rain, but for me that is the beauty of our weather, it is unpredictable. I have literally spent the entire week in my garden, which has provided me with lots of valuable reading time. Last weekend I finished Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island , which made me feel all nostalgic about growing up and the good, old-fashioned fun that a Blyton book always brings, even if you were born 50 years after their original publication!

I am currently reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I am enjoying, although there are certain sections that I personally could do without, but I shall leave that for my blog post. I have nearly finished part 5 of 8, which speaks volumes in terms of the amount of time I have spent lazing around outside. I did take a small break from all this sunbathing to meet my friend in Bath for lunch. There is the most amazing independent bookshop tucked away behind Waterstone’s, that I cannot praise enough. I am pretty sure I read in a Bath Lit Festival Guide that it was voted the best independent bookshop in the country, which it certainly deserves. They have a fantastic range of books and really friendly, helpful staff, who recommended a whole host of books, so my to buy list is growing. I must find out the name of this shop!

I hope this weather continues (even though the weatherman says it won’t) as I am loving all this reading time and I have my next book lined up: Ben Macintyre’s Operation Mincemeat.

Five on a Treasure Island

As a child I can always remember gazing longingly at my Mother’s collection of Enid Blyton books; they lived on the big bookcase. They were hers when she was young, and as a somewhat unruly child it took awhile for my parents to trust me to read them properly (obviously they did not know me very well because there is no way I would ever damage a book, but that is a discussion I will save for them!) I devoured The Magic Faraway Tree, longed with all my heart to go to school at Malory Towers and did my best not to emulate the adventures of The Naughtiest Girl in the School. But despite all this, I had never read a single Famous Five book, and how I waited until I was 24 to do so is beyond me. Luckily I changed that this weekend.

Last week my mum, my sister and I went on a day trip to Corfe Castle in Dorset. We have driven past it countless times in my lifetime, often on the way to the beach at Studland, however this was the first time we had actually visited the property. We parked at the Norden Park and Ride and got the steam train to the village. I’m not normally one to get all excited and, dare I say it, geeky about transport and least of all trains, but if all the trains in this country were old fashioned steam trains, I would willingly give up my car and travel by rail everywhere. It was amazing, a cross between Harry Potter and Agatha Christie. But I digress. So yes we went off to Corfe Castle and had a lovely time.

In the village of Corfe is a shop called The Ginger Pop Shop, dedicated to Enid Blyton and specialising in her books, audiobooks and various toys and exciting and interesting objects from the period. It is only a little shop, but it is so quaint and original it is hard not to love it.

And this is where I bought my first Famous Five book, Five on a Treasure Island!

Five on a Treasure Island is the first Famous Five novel and in it we are introduced to Julian, Dick, Anne, George (never Georgina) and Timothy the dog. Julian, Dick and Anne are sent on holiday to their Aunt’s at the seaside and it is here they meet their cousin, George, who is reluctant to make friends or to share her very own island with her cousins. George soon realises that sharing, whether you are sharing ice-cream, your feelings, or your island, is much more fun than keeping everything to your self, and the cousins set off on their first adventure – to save Kirrin Island from potential buyers and find the lost gold of George’s great, great, great grandfather.

There is something so gloriously simple about Blyton’s stories that prevent them from growing old thus ensuring they stay popular with generations of children. I know they have attempted to update the use of words like ‘golly’ and names such as ‘Aunt Fanny’, but I personally think it is ridiculous to attempt to modernise these timeless classics. Yes, I race through her books much faster than I did as a 9 year old, but my enjoyment is the same. My first venture into the Famous Five series brought excitement, adventure and a fantastic sense of nostalgia. Ok, so I grew up in 1990s England, but I’m fortunate enough to have childhood memories filled with those mythical endless summers, climbing trees, riding bikes, building dens and playing with friends all day long, and I almost wished we had come across a few mysteries to solve now I look back. Overall I had an amazing day in Corfe and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first Famous Five, I hope to return to them soon!

The Lady of the Rivers

In the final year of my undergrad Galaxy chocolate ran a competition, an ‘eat a bar of chocolate, enter a code and win a free book’ type of competition. Now I must have worked my way through a million bars of chocolate (yes I exaggerate) and not a free book in sight. My housemate ate ONE bar of Galaxy chocolate and lo and behold, she only won a book! Luckily for me, my housemate was/is a lovely person and she very kindly gave me the free book, and this is how I came to discover the novels of Philippa Gregory. Ever since I have been slowly working my way through the Tudor Court novels and the Cousins War novels.

The Lady of the Rivers is the third novel in the Cousins War series and follows the life of Jacquetta, the daughter of the Count of Luxembourg, who marries the Duke of Bedford and becomes a part of the English court of Henry VI. On the death of her husband Jacquetta marries for love and comes to play a pivotal role in the reign of Henry and his wife Margaret. Jacquetta is a descendent of the water goddess Melusina and has inherited some of the goddess’ powers; she can see the future, although she cannot always make sense of her visions. These visions help her to survive in the ruthless world of the 1400s and to overcome the dangers brought by a fight for the throne.

I always enjoy picking up a Philippa Gregory novel because I know I will be transported to another era; I quickly become enthralled in the comings and goings of the English Court, regardless of whose reign is the focal point of the novel. For me Gregory is a master at describing the sights, smells, sounds and fears of various points in British history, and her choice of main characters is a particular draw and a reason I return to her novels and follow her writing. I love how Gregory explores the lives of influential women in history; yes it was very much a man’s world, and it is important to discover and tell the story of women throughout history and this is something I feel Gregory does well. Her female characters are ones who have had an impact on the shape of British history, but are often those that we know little about, and this is particularly true of the Cousins War series; so far the novels have focused on Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret Beaufort and Jacquetta. I am sure there are people out there who have heard of these women, or who have studied them at some point during their education, but for the vast part of the population I imagine these names mean very little, but maybe I am only demonstrating my own ignorance with that sentence.

The Lady of the Rivers did not disappoint me or dampen my love and appreciation of Gregory and historical fiction as a whole. I enjoyed the exploration of magic and the fear that was brought through the use of alchemy and certain types of learning. It was dangerous to be a woman who did not conform to expectations, and this is something Gregory depicts accurately and effectively. This is especially true of Queen Margaret, who attempts to take over the reign of her husband after he loses his mind. She is rejected by the British public, who make it clear they want a man, and what’s more a British man on the throne and not a foreign born female, who they see as weak minded, fickle and untrustworthy; she is accused of entrancing the King and committing adultery, which led to the birth of an illegitimate son. The characters of Margaret and King Henry were perfectly described and came off as shallow and poor leaders, who were easily influenced by others in the Kingdom. They were frustrating and annoying, which made them great ‘bad guys’ in my opinion, even if they aren’t supposed to be viewed as such.

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I feel a strong urge to reread the first two novels in the series, both of which I wholeheartedly recommend. I look forward to reading the next installment The Kingmaker’s Daughter which I believe is due for publication in August…another one for the ever increasing ‘te read’ list.

Shakespeare’s History Plays

As an English teacher and a British citizen I am aware that I am a cliche and biased when I say I LOVE Shakespeare. His writing is simply beautiful and his narratives and plots are still relevant today; you only have to watch a soap opera, or in some cases a Disney film, to see this is true. Unfortunately he has become a much hated and feared name among the vast majority of those who studied him at school, and this is a challenge I look forward to overcoming in my teaching career. However this post is not about that, it is about The History Plays.

As with most people I am familiar with Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies. The National Curriculum in England states that all pupils must study Shakespeare in every year of secondary education, and there are certain plays that are more popular than others, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to name but a few. But The History Plays are not ones that I have ever come across, heard discussed in detail, seen on telly etc…until now. All I can say is God Bless the BBC! They have produced the most amazing series, The Hollow Crown detailing four of Shakespare’s histories, focusing on various British Kings. It started a few weeks ago with Richard II played by the fantastic Ben Whishaw, who is going to be in the new James Bond. His portrayal of the king was superb, and left me eagerly awaiting the next installment. Henry IV Part One did not disappoint. I finally discovered which play the infamous Falstaff is in and learnt about a period in British history I knew very little about. (I am currently reading Philippa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers so I am on Henry VI, and it is interesting learning about his family’s rise to the throne. Due to a manic weekend I missed Henry IV Part Two, so I will be Iplayer-ing that tonight and then next week is the final episode with Henry V.

This series has reawakened my love of historical fiction and has me reaching for the history books, and the brilliant Divorced, Beheaded, Died book on all the Kings and Queens of Great Britain to top up my trivia. The cast in the episodes I have viewed so far have been fantastic, and there are so many legendary and well respected actors in this series that it is a joy to watch every second. Yes it is bloody and gory in places, but we all know history has it’s murky moments, so I was expecting some gruesome battles. I am only sad that it is not really on primetime TV, but is on BBC 2, and it even got booted down the schedule because Wimbledon overran, which I think did not do the series the justice it deserves. Hopefully below I will be able to attach a youtube trailer for the series, but I strongly urge everyone to get on to BBC Iplayer and check this out if you haven’t already been following it.

Now although I know very little about The History Plays I did study Richard III at university, and I am ridiculously over excited about the fact I am going to see this play performed at The Globe in August. I can’t wait! I love The Globe Theatre and have been several times, the most memorable one was a performance of Macbeth in 2010, which was brilliantly spooky and well acted. I was a groundling for that performance and had to poke my head out of a black sheet which was used to create atmosphere. The witches were walking around under the sheet scaring the audience, so thank god I didn’t go to see it in the evening – the dark and the creeping about would have scared me to death. My Mum is coming with me this time and it will be her first experience of The Globe, so I am excited for her too.

This is quickly becoming a history obsessed summer, but I am certainly not complaining!

Small Island

Andrea Levy’s award winning novel Small Island follows the lives of four people from very different backgrounds and cultures and explores their experiences during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. The novel spans two time periods, the before and 1948, and has four narrative voices: Queenie, Bernard, Hortense and Gilbert. Queenie is a white British woman whose husband, Bernard, has failed to return from the war, despite the fact it ended three years ago. In order to help her financial difficulties and ease her loneliness she takes in lodgers, one of whom, Gilbert, is a Jamaican man who fought for Britain during the war and returns with his wife, Hortense, in the post-war years both hoping for a fresh start. Throughout the novel we are taken on a journey through Britain, Jamaica and India, discovering how our four protagonists coped throughout the war and how they all came together at 21 Nevern Street.

This novel explores many themes, primarily that of racism within the British Empire and the hypocrisy of a country that is prepared to fight alongside men of a different race, but to essentially snub them when the battle is done. It discusses the devastation of the Second World War, focusing on the underlying racial tensions experienced in the Allies camp and how this played out in Britain. I enjoyed how the war narrative focused on what was happening in India at the end of the War, as this is an area of history I know little about, and I appreciated how comparisons were drawn regarding the racial nature of Britain across the Empire; Levy doesn’t just focus on how Jamaicans were treated when they arrived in Britain in the post war years, but on how Indians were treated by the British troops who were over there fighting/protecting the Empire. This in turn parallels the treatment of working class bombing victims and their necessary moves to slightly posher areas of London. One disgruntled neighbour declares, ‘I’m not happy to have those people living here. This is a respectable street. Those kind of people do not belong here.’ This attitude crops up many times during the course of the novel, and I loved how Levy adapts the circumstances, so that the message highlights the prejudices of many levels of society. Relationships in the forms of friendship, love and convenient marriages are all brought to light throughout the novel, and I think Levy depicts the latter in a thought-provoking way, how important is love when a marriage can bring you what you desire?

Overall I cannot claim to have loved this novel. Yes it was interesting and I enjoyed viewing the war from different perspectives and learning more about the role British colonies played during the Second World War, but I was not gripped. I did not rush to pick the novel up or feel an overwhelming urge to shut out the rest of the world to find out if Queenie’s husband would return, or if Gilbert would win Hortense round. The last 50/60 pages were amazing and, ironically, I couldn’t put it down for those final pages, but for me it was too little, too late – I need more than 60 pages at the end of a 500+ novel.

David Copperfield

I came to David Copperfield with very little prior knowledge of the novel; I knew it had been adapted for TV with Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, and I knew the DVD was on my shelf, but I wanted to avoid it until I had read the book…a wise choice I like to think!

David Copperfield is a bildungsroman/coming of age novel (I always remember that first term from my A Level days and Jane Eyre and I love it) following David’s life from his poor and somewhat cruel childhood throughout the trials and tribulations of his adult life and culminating in his success as a novelist. Dickens explores the life of David and also the lives of various people he encounters along the way; this is a novel of many narrative threads, all of which are tied together at the end of the novel, some happily, some not.

This was definitely a novel of two halves for me, perhaps something that seems obvious considering it leads from childhood to adulthood, but that is beside the point. Although I enjoyed reading about David’s childhood and I loved how he created little hints and mysteries with comments such as ‘this may be premature. I have set it down too soon, perhaps. But let it stand.’, it was the second half of the novel that won me round. For me the pace of the narrative picked up in the second half of the novel; the problem with having several storylines is the time it takes to introduce and set up the characters and their separate struggles. Luckily Dickens is a master at characterisation, I especially loved Peggotty and her flying buttons! But yes the second half of the novel made the narrative come alive for me through all the interlinking storylines and my (failed) attempts to second guess what was going to happen next – I couldn’t put it down and wanted to race to the end to find out everyone’s fate, despite the fact the character of Dora drove me up the wall – she was just a little too immature and for want of a better word, sappy for me.

One of the things I enjoy with Victorian novels, and perhaps novels in general, is the choice of a character’s name, again something I remember from A Level and Jane Eyre, and there were two names in particular that I felt epitomised the characteristics of the person involved: Murdstone and Steerforth. Murdstone immediately brings connotations of murkiness for me, of someone harsh, perhaps with an ulterior motive, but it is Steerforth who has the most explicit name in the whole novel. As soon as he was introduced I knew he would be a cad – his name seems to suggest that you need to steer clear of him, and the fact that he is handsome, admired and powerful enough to have a schoolmaster sacked and have the ominous Mr. Creakle (Head of Salam’s House School) under control only helps to reinforce this notion. I look forward to my next Victorian novel and the mysteries a new set of names will hold.

A Difficult Top Ten

This week at The Broke and The Bookish the theme is ‘Top Ten Books for People who like X Author’, which is proving to be a tricky category for me mainly because (and here is a recent reading experience example) although I struggled when I originally read Lord of the Rings didn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit when I recently read it, and I think this is a reading feeling that can work both ways. On this basis I am going to focus on a few different authors as I think this will be easier from my point of view and offer a few possible reading suggestions.

If you like Evelyn Waugh you might also enjoy:

Madresfield by Jane Mulvagh – Exploring the house and the family behind Waugh’s famous novel Brideshead Revisited.

Any Nancy Mitford – Waugh and Mitford, as well as having a similar acid tongue and witty and accurate characterisation, were friends in real life, and I know I always enjoy reading novels by either of them for a glimpse into a particular aspect of British society of the twentieth century.

If you like Waugh and Mitford, you might enjoy:

The collection of their letters to one another. I’ll admit I haven’t read it, but it is on my TBR list.

If you like Nancy Mitford, you might enjoy discovering more about her and her fascinating family:

The Mitfords: Letters Between Six Sisters edited by Charlotte Mosley – The six Mitford sisters (Nancy, Diana, Pamela, Unity, Jessica and Deborah) maintained a written correspondence which spanned their lives. In this collection Mosley, Diana’s daughter-in-law, has complied a variety of their letters spanning decades and cleverly depicting the amusments, complications and tragedies that the sisters faced.

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford – Again not one I have read, but I keep hearing many good things about this.

Wait For Me by Deborah Devonshire – Debo is the youngest, and the only surviving Mitford sister and her autobiography offers a fascinating insight into not only the lives of the six sisters, but Deborah’s personal life and restoration of the beautiful Chatsworth House.

And finally whilst I am on a random journey across my bookshelf and this makes perfect sense to be in my little dot-to-dot link system

The Duchess by Amanda Foreman – Deborah Mitford is the current Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, which is how my little journey has arrived at Amanda Foreman’s historical biography of a previous Duchess of Devonshire. Georgiana lived from 1757-1806, and was a true icon of her age. She was influential in both fashion and later politics, something that was unheard of for a woman during that period; she was a drug addict, she had an affair with Earl Grey, but perhaps the most complicated and shocking aspect of her story is the relationship between her husband and her best friend and how Georgiana copes with this.

So yes a fairly random list of books, but I can see a clear link between them all and, as I said this is more a dot-to-dot of a certain area of my bookcase.