August Round Up

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The last day of August also brings the last day of freedom for the year as tomorrow morning I am back to school. I think this is a good thing as I am getting a bit bored and restless at home all the time and I need something to stop me from spending money like it is going out of fashion. As I finish off the last few jobs to ensure I am ready for the return to chaos, I thought it would also be a good idea to write my monthly round up post- it is the end of August after all. As with July, August was a brilliant month for holidays, country adventures and reading, of course! I spent some time in Devon, London and back home in Dorset; all trips were full of laughter and randomness, from dogs winning village shows to trips to A&E, from days walking around the beautiful Devon countryside to days catching up with friends in London. It has been a lovely summer!

My reading this month has been varied and enjoyable. I have completed seven books this month, eight if I count Lewis Carroll’s books as two separate stories and they were originally published as two stories. This month I have read:

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

A House in the Country by Jocelyn Playfair

Ordeal by Innocence by Agatha Christie

Peril at End House by Agatha Christie

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Peter Pan by J.M.Barrie

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Challenges
The number and variety of books I have read this month has also helped me with my various challenges, so I am certainly feeling pleased about reading.

TBR Pile 2014
The Six Wives of Henry VIII counts towards this challenge and I’m pleased as this was the book I was most worried about completing. I have currently read nine books for this challenge, so only three more to go and I am pretty confident I will achieve this.

The Classics Club
The Hound of the Baskervilles brings my total up to 17/50. I think next year I need to add a fair few books from this list to my TBR Pile and keep taking part in The Classics Club Spins as I’m not doing very well on this particular challenge, especially as I think I am half way through my deadline!

Reading the Twentieth Century
A House in the Country, Ordeal by Innocence, Peril at End House, Peter Pan and The Hound of the Baskervilles all count towards this challenge. I have decided to use any book that fits this challenge as opposed to just using one book per author during the century. I am enjoying this challenge and I like how I have no specific deadline for it. I might set one as I am nearing the end of the challenge, especially to ensure I actually finish it, but I am happy with my progress so far.

I am under no illusion that I will read anywhere near as many books in September as school life always limits my reading to a certain extent. I have started a reading enrichment at school, which will allow me some extra reading time each week, but I still think seven books during term time would be a tall order. It has been a fantastic summer and I have enjoyed having so much time for reading, but I am definitely ready to go back to a life of structure.

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The Hound of the Baskervilles

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In the last Classics Club Spin I was fortunate enough for it to land on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, a book I had not only read before but one that was fairly short too. I was pretty happy when I saw this was my read and it fitted in nicely with my reading schedule and I have finished it before I return to school.

The Hound of the Baskervilles sees the return of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson. This was published after Conan Doyle had sent Holmes to his untimely death so can be seen as an attempt to submit to the braying public who clearly needed more Sherlock adventures in their lives. It is also one of the few Holmes novels, with the majority of the stories being in short story form. We begin at Holmes’ infamous address of 221B Baker Street and Dr Mortimer calls to discuss the recent death of his friend and neighbour, Sir Charles Baskerville. The Baskerville family have been haunted by a terrifying hound for generations and when Sir Charles is found terrified to death, everyone is convinced the hound is responsible. Dr Mortimer is worried that Sir Charles’ heir might meet the same fate, so he enlists the help of Holmes and Watson to solve this mystery. Watson sets off to Devon on his own to get to know the neighbours and more about this mysterious, supernatural beast.

Like the rest of the world I have been an avid viewer of the fantastic series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, but it has been a while since I read any Sherlock Holmes so it was great to reread one. I vaguely remembered the plot, but had forgotten how intricate and detailed Holmes’ thinking and logic are and the in depth descriptions Conan Doyle uses throughout. The detail and thought behind his plots is amazing; it’s almost hard to believe that Conan Doyle believed in fairies and the supernatural having created such a logical and scientifically minded detective.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is a brilliant read and I would say it is a great introduction to Holmes if you haven’t read any of the stories before. I love how the majority of the narrative takes the reader out of the grimy streets of London and to the windswept, misty and unknown landscape of Devon and the moors. The setting is what makes this novel so memorable. The backdrop of Dartmoor and how it is a landscape full of bogs, mires and ancient, abandoned buildings helps to create an eerie atmosphere throughout, one where you can really believe in the supernatural and this hound from hell that is terrorising the Baskerville family. It truly shows how nature can hold such mysteries and uncertainties. I can’t think of any criticisms for this book; Holmes comes across as arrogant at times, but then that is one of the key traits of his character that makes him so endearing and unique. Watson’s narrative allows the reader to feel truly involved in the investigation. We know everything he does and can share in his clues and his frustrations at Holmes’ superior knowledge and secret methods. It is a brilliant detective novel and I do love detective novels, so really it was everything I could have asked for in a read and I’m so glad the Spin landed on The Hound of the Baskervilles as it meant I reread it much sooner than I would have done without the Spin.

Challenges

The Classics Club

Reading the Twentieth Century

Peter Pan

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Having decided that Alice in Wonderland might be a tad too confusing for the class I have in mind, I read Peter Pan for the first time to see if this would be a more appropriate choice. As with Alice this is story that I am sure everyone knows; from the 1953 Disney version to the 2003 adaptation, from Hook to Finding Neverland I would be surprised if you have managed to miss all links/associations to J.M.Barrie’s classic. But just incase…Wendy, John and Michael Darling are awoken in their nursery by Peter Pan, a boy who doesn’t want to grow up. With a little help from some fairy dust the Darling children soon fly off to Neverland and a world of adventures withThe Lost Boys, mermaids and the infamous pirate, Captain James Hook. The more time they spend in Neverland the more their memories of home, their parents and their Nanny, the dog, Nana, fade, leaving the reader unsure if they will ever return home and grow up.

I am sure it comes as no surprise to those who read children’s classics, that Peter Pan is another novel that has been well and truly Disneyfied. I watched the film at the weekend and as with all Disney films it is a feel good film, just what I love and expect from Disney. There is a reason Disney films are so popular, especially with a younger audience and even as an adult it is comforting to watch them again. However all this happy endings and romance in the film has replaced the darker elements from Barrie’s original work. Neverland isn’t a magical, fairy tale island. The Lost Boys, ‘Redskins’ and pirates are all enemies and when they fight, they kill. Peter Pan is not a carefree, loveable boy who refuses to grow up, he is actually pretty arrogant and spoilt. This is not a criticism, believe me. It makes the book much more interesting in my eyes and after reading this and Alice in Wonderland I am keen to read more stories behind some of my favourite Disney films to see how they are different.

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The novel is full of memorable characters from the Disney version. I remember a few years ago watching the film and hating Wendy for being too simpering and girly, so I was glad that these qualities were not as overpowering in the novel. Captain Hook is exactly as all films depict him, looking somewhat regal with his Charles I (or II, I don’t know which). My favourite character has got to by the crocodile, who can help but admire a beast that ticks and spends its whole life chasing one person alone. I think it is the ticking I like the most.

Before reading Peter Pan I had very little knowledge of the origins of the character, despite having watched Finding Neverland, but then I am terrible at films. I am almost ashamed to say that I didn’t realise that Peter Pan started off as a play and was later adapted into the novel I read. Taken on face value this is a great story of adventure and is action packed and as I was reading it I could visualise different activities I could use when teaching it, which is fantastic. However in my research to find the true publication date of the novel version, I came across a much darker level to the novel that is certainly more interesting from an adult perspective and I think helps take the novel from just a story of magic lands and pirates. When Barrie was 6/7 his older brother tragically died in an ice skating accident, leaving their mother grieving and thus suffering from depression. Barrie tried his best to fill his older brother’s shoes, from wearing his clothes to speaking in a similar way, all to little effect. It is clear that this traumatic childhood event had a lifelong impact on Barrie and inspired his most famous character, especially as Peter refuses to grow up and Barrie’s own mother could never get over the image of her eldest son as a child. Arguably this is the reason why Barrie constantly alludes to a mother’s love and the need everyone has for a mother throughout the novel; the role of the father is barely touched upon, maybe because it was his mother’s grief that stuck in his mind. I’m undecided as to whether or not I will bring this element in to my teaching, but I know I would like to know more about how Barrie came to create such memorable characters.

Challenges

Peter Pan counts towards my Reading the Twentieth Century challenge.

For some bizarre reason I couldn’t find this for free on the Kindle, so read this on my iPad. Needless to say, I do NOT like reading on my iPad. It seems really abnormal and the iPad is just not a comfortable size for holding/reading in bed and the light is irritating. I can of course see the benefits of being able to read books on your iPads/iPods/iPhones but it certainly isn’t for me.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.

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Thanks to Disney I am sure everyone knows the story of Alice in Wonderland whether it is through the 1950s animated version or the modern version starring Johnny Depp. Although Alice in Wonderland wasn’t my favourite Disney film I do remember watching it as a child, so imagine my confusion when I read the first part of this book a few years ago and noticed the absence of some of the more well loved characters from the animated film. When I initially read part of this book I remember feeling a little ‘what the hell?’ about the plot and just bemused in general. I decided to reread it mainly because I was debating teaching Alice in Wonderland although I have since changed my mind.

Whilst sitting under a tree with her sister, Alice spots a white rabbit hurrying by and she follows him down a rabbit hole and into a world of pure wonder. A world where you can grow or shrink in size just by eating a teeny bit of cake or having a sip from a bottle persuading you to ‘drink me.’ A world where animals talk, often in poems or riddles, where babies turn into pigs and where a tea party lasts forever. Perhaps most worryingly it is a world where the Queen of Hearts is constantly shouting ‘OFF WITH HER HEAD!’

Alice returns to Wonderland in Through the Looking Glass and it is here that she meets some of the more memorable characters from the film, such as TweedleDee and TweedleDum. This version of Wonderland is, as the title suggests, ‘through the looking glass’ and is all topsy turvy and back to front, as things in a mirror often are. Alice’s mission is to make it to the eighth square on the chessboard landscape and become queen and she is helped on the way by many bizarre characters.

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If I had to sum up Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass in one word it would be surreal. They are just the most bizarre books and although there is some kind of narrative plot, it is more just a series of meetings Alice has with the strange inhabitants of Wonderland. They are certainly entertaining and memorable characters, which is why people who haven’t even read Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass know of The Mad Hatter or TweedleDee and TweedleDum. I think out of the two I prefer Through the Looking Glass, even if it has the dreaded Jabberwocky poem in it (I had to teach this and I absolutely HATED it!) I love the play on words throughout and the little riddles from the Wonderland characters and how they emphasise the double meanings and the difficulties of the English language, especially the following exchange about answering a door.

‘”To answer the door?” He said. “What’s it been asking of?” He was so hoarse that Alice could scarcely hear him.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“I speaks English, doesn’t I?” The Frog went on. “Or are you deaf? What did it ask you?”‘

I can certainly see how this would be an interesting book to teach, particularly for the wordplay, however I know the class I have to teach and I think a lot of this will go over their heads. I think I will certainly keep it in mind for next year and for other classes as I enjoyed reading it and it will make a creative class text.

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My addition had fantastic illustrations by John Tenniel whose drawings clearly influenced Disney and our popular perception of what Alice and the characters and world of Wonderland looked like.

Peril At End House

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Whilst on holiday on the Cornish Riviera Hercule Poirot is alarmed to hear the pretty Nick Buckley mention her recent ‘accidental brushes with death.’ A painting nearly crushed her in her bed, a falling boulder narrowly missed her and the brakes on her car failed on a particularly dangerous hill. Buckley brushes these near misses aside, but when Poirot notices a bullet hole in her hat, Poirot is convinced she is in danger and is determined to find the killer before another attempt is made on Buckley’s life.

And for my second Agatha Christie holiday choice I went for a Poirot novel and I was happy to read of the Belgian detective’s latest case. I mentioned in my previous review that I missed the familiar sleuth in a Christie novel so to discover Poirot fully involved in this case was great. This was a cleverly plotted novel (when is it ever not clever with Chrisite?) and I liked how the previous attempts on Buckley’s life gave a clear starting point with which to begin my own deductive skills and created a sense of mystery and time running out right from the start. Poirot was a little stumped by this crime and wrote a very handy list of suspects with possible motives and questions he needed answering which was fantastic as a reader as it helped focus on the suspects and evidence for when I tried to guess the murderer. In terms of reading I found this novel more engaging towards the end and I certainly experienced the whole ‘can’t put it down until I know who dunnit’ feeling. Of course I didn’t guess the murderer, but I did enjoy the novel and the gathering of suspects that is associated with Christie novels.

Challenges

Reading the Twentieth Century

Ordeal by Innocence

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It wouldn’t be a trip to Devon and more specifically Galampton and Greenway House without at least one Agatha Christie read (the latter is the country home she purchased with her second husband, Max). I came to this part of Devon last year with Mum and two dogs, but this year we left pug at home, mainly because she likes to bark at sea gulls, the wind, small children etc. Now of course I bought some new books, especially as I’m on a mini mission to read all Poirot books, but I opted for a book that doesn’t feature the famous Belgian detective…or the elderly Miss Marple…or even Tommy and Tuppence, two less well known Christie creations.

Ordeal By Innocence is the third and final book in my Greenway Collection, a series of books that were inspired by Christie’s time at Greenway. The first two (Dead Man’s Folly and Five Little Pigs) both feature Poirot, however Ordeal by Innocence is one of Christie’s novels that does not include a returning detective. Dr Arthur Calgary has the proof to show that Jacko Argyle did not murder his mother. However as we arrives at the family home he discovers he is too late; Jacko died of pneumonia six months into his life sentence. The Argyles do not show the expected delight in discovering Jacko’s innocence, they know that his innocence means that one of them is guilty. But who?

I love Agatha Christie and whenever I read one of her novels I am quickly engrossed in the mystery and trying my hardest – and failing – to guess the murderer. Ordeal by Innocence was true to form. However I was missing something. I kept expecting Poirot or Miss Marple to appear on the next page to come along and solve the crime. Obviously they didn’t! There were amateur detectives in the form of Dr Calgary and the brother in law of the wrongly accused, but they weren’t the same as a character you come to know and love over a series of novels. There were some interesting ideas regarding nature and nurture in the raising of children, as the victims five children were all adopted. This seemed to be more of a red herring and although I know very little about psychology I imagine this was a relatively new or popular theory during the time of writing this novel which is why it plays such a key part of the narrative. I did enjoy Ordeal by Innocence but this is not one of my favourite Christie novels.

Challenges

Reading the Twentieth Century

A House in the Country

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In 1942 Britain was in the midst of the Second World War, with London recovering from the constant bombing and the nation unsure as to whether or not victory was possible, I can imagine an escape to the country and the safety it seemed to offer was an ideal option for many. In Jocelyn Playfair’s A House in the Country it seems that a few ‘homeless’ people have done just that and left behind their previous lives, whether by choice or by force, and have all found themselves at Brede Manor. It is here that Cressida Chance is essentially house sitting for Charles Varley, a man she is in love with and has been since before the war, despite having not seen him since the death of her husband five years earlier. Brede Manor seems to draw a mix of different people and classes and shows just how the war changed the cosy image of the servant run country manor and the lives of those who saw this as the norm. Alongside this narrative is the story of Charles Varley and how he comes to terms with his past and the hold his family estate has on him.

I really enjoyed A House in the Country and I know I always say I enjoy what I read, but this was an unexpected pleasure. I received the book as a present and admittedly I had put it on the list of books I wanted my family to choose from, but when it arrived I couldn’t remember why and I did think about some of the other books on my list that I kind of wanted more. Doesn’t that make me sound awfully spoilt and ungrateful? I like a surprise but I’m guessing I still have favourites in the books I list. However well done to my grandparents for choosing this one as I think it is the Persephone Book I have enjoyed the most.

From the opening chapter I was intrigued. It focuses on a submarine attack on a ship and the immediate aftermath of oil fires on the sea and fatal explosions. And then we automatically jump to Brede Manor and meet some of the characters who live there; as a reader I was drawn into this country lifestyle but still aware of this nagging feeling of wanting to know what had happened on this ship. Luckily the main narrative is put on hold for the occasional chapter on the aftermath of the submarine attack and the end of the novel sees the two narratives collide in an interesting and tied up conclusion.

The main character, Cressida is an engaging and refreshing female who can see that war signifies a huge change in the role of women in the house and in particular that of upper class women with the lack of servants and the need to do their own cooking and cleaning. She is certainly quick to embrace the changes, offering a stark contrast to her elderly Aunt Jessie, who finds eating in the kitchen a far from desirable affair. Cressida brings about a second mystery, the death of her husband, Simon, again with readers drip fed information and snippets about what had happened to him. Many characters refer to Cressida’s kindness and this is clear throughout the novel as she opens the house to those in need and cares for them. However her caring nature hides her loneliness and longing for an unrequited love. After the death of her husband, Cressida appears to have been living on auto pilot, putting her own happiness and feelings on hold whilst she waits for her love to (hopefully) return.

I highlighted a few quotations from the novel, but it think I am just going to share my favourite. Towards the end of the novel, Cressida is reflecting on the idea of falling in love and says:

‘It’s different when you know someone and find that you love them. You can be in love with a mere acquaintance. You can fall in love with a total stranger, at first sight and all that! And the trouble then begins because the moment you’re even a little in love you start idealising the stranger, pretty well making up a character for them which may turn out to be entirely imaginary! You can’t really love anyone until you know them.’

I love this quotation and I know I am not alone in being a little bit guilty of the type of love at first sight and over active imagination Cressida is reflecting upon here. I don’t think this is going to have a dramatic impact as it is fun to daydream, but I will certainly be returning to this section when I am in need of a reality check!

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As with all Persephone Books A House in the Country has a fabulous endpaper.

Challenges

Reading the Twentieth Century

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

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A couple of years ago when I worked at a well known bookstore I decided it was time to read more history and so I picked up The Six Wives of Henry VIII. And so it sat on my bookshelf for a few years and it took until I added it to my TBR Pile 2014 for me to pick it up. I was a tad worried about the size of the book and whether or not the subject matter would engage me and I pinpointed this as the book I was most worried about completing. Luckily I was wrong.

I decided the best way to read this book was to mix it up with some fiction and I originally aimed to read it a wife at a time, however around wife three I decided I would just read it when I wanted and if I wanted to read about them one after another then I would. This made slightly more sense as the book is divided into different sections however these aren’t clearly cut between different wives as obviously there are periods of crossovers between wives and some wives were married much longer than others. In fact Henry VIII was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon for longer than the other five wives put together.

Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was never originally intended for him. Married to his older brother, Arthur and destined to become Queen of England from a young age, it was a shock when Arthur died shortly after their marriage, thus leaving Catherine, with only part of her dowry paid, captive in England under the command of Henry VII. Although six years older than Henry, they married and had, as Fraser portrays, a happy and successful marriage, just lacking the birth of a male heir. Or at least it was happy until Anne Boleyn came on the scene.

Fraser’s chapters on Catherine of Aragon provide a detailed insight into her journey to becoming Queen of England and it is fair to say she is a woman to be admired; trained to become Queen of England from a young age, she survives the death of Arthur and what is essentially seven years in isolation as Henry VII’s prisoner in all but name. However there were times when I lost interest in the narrative. It was certainly interesting to read the facts, but I feel as though I already knew a lot of this information from my reading of Philippa Gregory’s The Constant Princess and the TV programme The Tudors. I know both are highly fictionalised versions of the story, but they do make it more memorable.

Next came Anne Boleyn, the woman who changed the face of religion in England and who tempted Henry VIII away from his wife of many years. Anne Boleyn is certainly an interesting woman and one who perhaps would have been better suited living in the twentieth century. She was a very determined woman and as everyone knows she had a tragic downfall as Henry VIII got bored of waiting for a male heir and his attentions wandered elsewhere…to Jane Seymour, the wife who gave Henry his much desired legitimate son. This birth did lead to Seymour’s death and yes Henry was devastated for a while and then he started looking for his next wife. Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, had the shortest marriage, as she wasn’t what Henry expected and his attentions soon turned to a 17 year old girl who sparked his interest and made a fat, old man feel youthful again. Unfortunately Katherine Howard didn’t stand a chance. She was a naive, foolish girl who fell in love with an attractive young man and thus had her head chopped off. Lastly, Catherine Parr, a widow who became more of a nurse than a lover to the ageing King.

That is clearly a very brief overview of what is a detailed and complex look at these women who often take a backseat to the tyrannical rule of Henry VIII. I have read a few historical novels based on this time period and have watched shows like The Tudors, which obviously portray a glamorised view of this time period, but I think it certainly helped my reading of The Six Wives of Henry VIII. It was really interesting reading more about various people who I had come across previously and to develop my understanding of these six women from a more feminist style perspective. Fraser’s writing is engaging and she has clearly researched these women in detail and this helps make this an easy read that I quickly became absorbed with every time I picked it up. There were some parts that held my attention more than others, but I think this is bound to be the case in most non fiction books and particularly ones as dense as this. However this is a fantastic narrative of the wives and one I would certainly recommend to anyone who reads a lot of historical fiction set during Tudor times.

Challenges

TBR Pile 2014

Reading the Twentieth Century – No it doesn’t as I already have a book for 1991!

A French Affair

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A French Affair was the fourth book I read on my trip to Malta and my first ever Katie Fforde book. She is an author I have seen in bookshops and the library on numerous occasions but I have never read any of her books. This was a good introduction.

Gina and Sally Makepiece have inherited a stall at the antiques shop The French House. Neither of them know a thing about antiques. However after meeting the owner, Matthew, who is described in the blurb as ‘a modern day Mr Rochester’ they both decide it is worth a shot and that they need to bring The French House into the twenty-first century. In typical chick lit fashion, Gina has moved to the area after a break up and is looking for a fresh start and of course you just know something is going to happen with Matthew.

A French Affair was another good, chick lit style read for my summer holiday. As with some of my other reads there were times when the narrative was predictable, but it still threw up a few surprises. I liked the comparison to Matthew as Mr Rochester, especially as at one point there was a description of Matthew and his dog which was reminiscent of one of the descriptions of Mr R and Pilot, so I did like that literary nod. This was a lovely introduction to Fforde’s writing and I am sure it won’t be the last of her novels I read.

I’m a little sad as this is my last blog post on books from Malta, luckily I’m off to Devon and Agatha Christie’s country home for a week tomorrow so I won’t have the holiday blues for long.