Nonfiction November Week 3: Be (and ask) the Expert

For Week 3 of Nonfiction November, the topic is as follows:

(Nov. 12 to 16) – Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert (hosted by Julie at JulzReads): Three ways to join in this week! You can either share three or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I haven’t really read enough non-fiction on any subject to be able to call myself an expert, but here are three books I have read about one of my favourite periods of history, the Wars of the Roses:

The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones

This is a sequel to Dan Jones’ previous book, The Plantagenets. The book covers the whole of the Wars of the Roses period, beginning with the marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois and ending with the reign of Henry VII. It’s both factual and entertaining, although I found it slightly biased towards the Lancastrian/Tudor side.

The Women of the Cousins’ War: The Duchess, the Queen and the King’s Mother by Philippa Gregory, David Baldwin and Michael Jones

A companion book to Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series of novels. The book contains essays on three of the most important female historical figures of the period – one by Philippa Gregory on Jacquetta of Luxembourg, another by David Baldwin on Elizabeth Woodville and the final one by Michael Jones on Margaret Beaufort. It’s not necessary to have read the novels first.

Blood Sisters: The Women Behind the Wars of the Roses by Sarah Gristwood

Another non-fiction book that looks at the period from a female perspective. The seven women whose lives are covered in this book are: Margaret of Anjou, Cecily Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Burgundy, Anne Neville, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth of York.

~

Now I’m going to ‘Ask the Expert’…

Have you read any good nonfiction about the Wars of the Roses or any of the historical figures who lived during that time? I would love some recommendations!

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings – Tapestry of War and The Desert War

For Week 2 of Nonfiction November, the topic is as follows:

(Nov. 5 to 9, hosted by Sarah’s Bookshelves) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing – This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I’ve recently read two books that fit this week’s topic perfectly…

Fiction: Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie

Tapestry of War follows the very different experiences of two young women during World War II. In Egypt, we meet Fran Trevillian, a journalist working for the Alexandria Journal, reporting on the issues that are important to the diverse communities that have made the city their home. As Rommel’s forces draw closer to Alexandria, Fran falls in love with Jim MacNeill, a Scottish radar specialist. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Jim’s sister Catriona has finished training to be a nurse and is hoping to use her new skills to provide therapy for injured soldiers who have been sent home from the war. On the Isle of Islay, where she lives with her father, however, nursing opportunities seem limited and Catriona longs to move away to somewhere where she feels her work can really make a difference.

Although there is occasionally some drama in the stories of our two main characters and their friends, this is a very character driven novel. Both women change and grow as people as a result of the work they carry out during the war and the new relationships they develop. I enjoyed each storyline equally, drawn more to Fran’s at the beginning because it was set closer to the action, but appreciating Catriona’s more and more as the novel progressed. I became completely invested in the lives of each woman, sharing in their happiness as each finds love when they least expect it and in their sadness as the tragedy of war strikes again and again.

Most of my previous World War II reading has concentrated on the war in Europe, so my knowledge of what was happening in North Africa is more limited. I found that I was learning a lot from Tapestry of War, but I knew I needed to read some non-fiction to fill in the gaps…

Nonfiction: The Desert War by James Holland

This little book is part of the Ladybird Expert series, aimed at adult readers but published in the same format that those of us who loved Ladybird books as children will remember. Written in a clear and concise style, the left hand pages contain the text while on the right there’s a map, a photograph or an illustration.

Beginning in 1940, when the Italians, under Mussolini, entered the Second World War, James Holland takes us in chronological order through each stage of the war in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It’s all very factual and straight to the point, with none of the author’s own personality coming through, but in a book with only 50 pages (half of them pictures) and a lot of information to cover, that’s understandable. Battles and raids are described briefly, concentrating on the outcome and any notable tactics or weapons that were used.

The Desert War is a perfect introduction to the subject and can easily be read in less than an hour. If, when you’ve finished it, you want to explore things in more detail, some recommendations for further reading are given, although there are no references or sources provided. I didn’t mind this as all I wanted from this book was a chance to learn some basic facts and to get the timeline of events straight in my mind – it’s obviously not intended to be a comprehensive, in-depth read. Looking at the other titles in the Ladybird Experts series, I see there are several more by James Holland covering different aspects of the war, as well as books by other authors on topics as diverse as witchcraft, genetics and Beowulf.

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a review copy of Tapestry of War and to Penguin Random House for a review copy of The Desert War.

Do you like to read fiction and non-fiction on the same subject? Can you think of any pairs of books that go well together?

Nonfiction November: Week 1 – Your Year in Nonfiction

Today is the first day of 2018’s Nonfiction November, hosted by Kim of Sophisticated Dorkiness, Rennie of What’s Nonfiction, Katie of Doing Dewey, Julz of JulzReads and Sarah of Sarah’s Bookshelves. I’ve never taken part in this event before as I don’t tend to read nonfiction very often, but it has occurred to me that maybe that is precisely why I should be joining in – so that I can look back at the nonfiction I’ve already read, focus on the nonfiction I would like to be reading in the future, and hopefully pick up some good recommendations from other bloggers along the way.

This week’s topic is:

Week 1: (Oct. 29 to Nov. 2) – Your Year in Nonfiction

Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?

Here are all of the nonfiction books I have read so far this year (there aren’t many):

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W Tuchman
Golden Lads by Daphne du Maurier
Murder by the Book by Claire Harman
A Tudor Christmas by Alison Weir
Henry VII by Gladys Temperley

I will be posting my reviews of the last three books during November.

Of these, the book I enjoyed the most was The Oaken Heart, Margery Allingham’s memoir of life in her small English village during the Second World War. However, A Distant Mirror was a fascinating read and I found that I was learning a huge amount from it. I would recommend it to anyone interested in the 14th century.

As usual, the topic I’ve been attracted to this year has been history. I’ve read some wartime history, some medieval history, a biography of Francis and Anthony Bacon, a book about a true historical crime, a book on Tudor Christmas traditions and a biography of Henry VII! Therefore my answer to the question “What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?” has to be anything other than history!

I’m hoping that participating in Nonfiction November will inspire me to read more nonfiction and will point me in the direction of some books I might enjoy.

~

How has your year in nonfiction been? What are the best nonfiction books you’ve read this year?

Persephone Readathon: Some past reviews

This is just a quick post to let you know, if you don’t already, that Jessie of Dwell in Possibility is hosting a Persephone Readathon which runs from 1-11 February. I should have posted about this yesterday but haven’t been very organised recently!

You can find everything you need to know at Jessie’s blog, but the idea of the Readathon is to read and write about books published by Persephone (there’s a complete list on the Persephone website here). I am currently reading The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby, which also happens to be on my Classics Club list.

For now, though, here are the Persephones I have already read and reviewed on my blog:

~

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

From my review: “I found Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day very easy to read, and with the entire story taking place in a day, it moved along at a fast pace. The perfect choice if you’re in the mood for something light hearted, fun and frivolous. Although it didn’t immediately become a favourite book, it was a lively, entertaining read full of amusing scenes and witty dialogue that made me smile.”

Alas, Poor Lady by Rachel Ferguson

From my review: “I loved this book but I know it won’t appeal to everyone. It’s slow and detailed, doesn’t have a lot of plot, and it did seem to take me a long time to read it. And yet without anything really ‘happening’ there’s still so much going on in this book that this post could easily have been twice as long as it is. So, for anyone with an interest in feminism and the differing roles of men and women in society, I can’t recommend Alas, Poor Lady highly enough.”

The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

From my review: “The pages of The Blank Wall are filled with tension and suspense. The plot is exciting and fast-paced and I could never guess what might happen next…I haven’t read many stories of the American Home Front during the war, so this was another interesting aspect of the book for me. A great story and one of my favourite Persephones so far.”

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

From my review: “I thought the whole idea of someone being cut off from the world and returning home only to find themselves suddenly thrown into the middle of a war was absolutely fascinating. This book has the perfect blend of humour and poignancy and gives us an opportunity to explore World War II from a unique perspective.”

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

From my review: “These stories are not particularly dramatic or sensational in any way. They are realistic stories that focus not so much on the war itself, but on the effects of the war on the women (and a few of the men) who were left behind at home. We read about women attending sewing parties, worrying about loved ones who are away fighting, preparing for their husbands to go to war, coping with being pregnant during the war and experiencing almost any other wartime situation you can think of.”

The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski

From my review: “I’ve seen this book described as a horror story – ‘a little jewel of horror’. For me, though, it wasn’t so much frightening as unsettling and creepy… At only 99 pages, this book can easily be read in an hour, but there’s so much packed into those 99 pages that the story will stay in your mind for a lot longer than that.”

Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan

From my review: “This novel has very little plot but like most Persephone books it raises a lot of interesting issues including marriage, parent/child relationships and class differences. The book itself is well written and I liked the setting and the time period, but unfortunately this is the first Persephone I’ve read that I didn’t enjoy much at all.”

Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski

From my review: “There are so many great books that are let down by a weak ending, but this is certainly not one of them. The tension throughout the final few chapters was nearly unbearable, so much so that I was almost afraid to reach the end. And I imagine most readers, like I did, will have tears in their eyes when they reach the very last sentence. Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian, who is quoted on the back cover, says it best: If you like a novel that expertly puts you through the wringer, this is the one.

Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

From my review: “Family Roundabout is a very character-driven novel and fortunately almost every character in the story is well drawn and interesting. There were some that I didn’t like (Belle has to be one of the most horrible, vile people I’ve come across in fiction for quite a long time) but I enjoyed following all of their stories through to the end of the book. I loved the portrayal of the self-absorbed author, Arnold Palmer, and I thought the child characters were very well written too, which is maybe not surprising from a writer who wrote so many successful children’s books!”

And two more which are also available as Persephones, although my editions were from other publishers:

Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson

From my review: “Delightful, charming, warm, cosy – those are the type of words I would use to describe Miss Buncle’s Book. Written in the 1930s, D.E. Stevenson captures perfectly the atmosphere of life in a small English village at that time – a place where everybody knows everybody else, where freshly baked breakfast rolls are delivered to the villagers every morning, where people meet for tea parties or musical evenings and gossip with the neighbours over the garden fence.”

Flush by Virginia Woolf

From my review: “Flush is a wonderfully creative combination of fiction and non-fiction. For factual information, Woolf draws on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s two poems about her dog and also the letters of Elizabeth and Robert, some of which she quotes from in the text. From a fictional point of view, the book is written from Flush’s perspective, imagining how a dog might feel and behave in a variety of different situations. The result is a book which is fascinating, unusual and a delight to read!”

~

Have you read any of these? I know many of you have read a lot more Persephone books than I have!

Shadow of the Moon readalong

Just a quick post today to tell you about a readalong I’m going to be participating in this summer. I know I’ve mentioned before that The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye is one of my favourite historical fiction novels. I have also enjoyed two of her mysteries – Death in Kashmir and Death in Berlin – but for some reason still haven’t read her other historical novels, Shadow of the Moon and Trade Wind, despite having had a copy of the former on my shelf for a while now. When I saw that Cirtnecce of Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices and Cleo of Classical Carousel were planning a Shadow of the Moon readalong starting in June this seemed the perfect opportunity to finally pick up my copy and start reading.

Like The Far Pavilions, this book is set in India, a country Kaye really seemed to understand and wrote about beautifully. It was published in 1957, much earlier than The Far Pavilions (1978), so I’m curious to see what it is like and, from what I’ve heard about it, I’m anticipating another great read!

Midnight Blue by Simone van der Vlugt

Midnight Blue is a novel set in the Netherlands in the 17th century and written by Dutch author Simone van der Vlugt. Originally published in Dutch, this edition from HarperCollins features an English translation by Jenny Watson.

As the novel opens in 1654, we meet Catrin, a young woman who lives in the village of De Rijp and who has recently been widowed. Hoping to make a new start, Catrin says goodbye to her family and sets out on the long journey to Amsterdam, where she has been offered work. Arriving in the city, she takes up her new position as housekeeper to the merchant Adriaan van Nulandt.

As she settles into her job and gets to know the family, an attraction forms between Catrin and Adriaan’s younger brother, the charismatic and adventurous Matthias. She also watches with envy and fascination as Adriaan’s wife, Brigitta, is encouraged to pursue her passion for painting, something for which Catrin also has a talent. It’s not long, however, before a face Catrin thought she had left behind reappears, threatening to tear apart the new life she has built for herself – and so she decides it’s time to move on again, this time to Delft and the home of another Van Nulandt brother, Evert. Evert owns a pottery workshop and it is here that Catrin finds an opportunity to put her artistic abilities to good use at last…

Although Catrin’s personal story is fictional, the world in which Simone van der Vlugt places her is grounded in historical fact. My knowledge of Dutch history is very limited, picked up mainly from the few other novels I’ve read set in the country, and it’s always good to have the opportunity to learn something new! The period covered by the novel includes such notable events as the Delft Explosion of 1654 and an outbreak of the plague. Life in Catrin’s home village of De Rijp and the cities of Amsterdam and Delft is vividly described, and as Catrin spends so much time travelling from one place to another, we are also given descriptions of the scenery seen from the canals and rivers which link her various destinations.

The time during which the novel is set – known as the Dutch Golden Age – saw art, science, trade and industry flourishing in the Netherlands, including the pottery industry which forms such an important part of the story. You can expect to learn a lot about mixing chemicals, painting designs, glazing pots and firing them in kilns…and you’ll come away from the novel with an admiration for Delft Blue, the blue and white pottery produced at Evert’s workshop. Several historical figures from the art world are incorporated into the story too, although I found it difficult to believe that Catrin would have come into contact with so many famous artists of the period – Rembrandt, Vermeer, Nicolaes Maes and Carel Fabritius all make an appearance and all have words of advice or encouragement for Catrin.

Catrin herself is an interesting character. The novel is written in first person present tense, which is not my favourite for historical fiction, but it does mean that we get to know our narrator quite well. Even so, we don’t know everything about her immediately; Catrin keeps some parts of her past hidden to be revealed later on – and when the past does begin to catch up with her, this introduces a thriller element to the novel which adds another layer of interest. I was occasionally pulled out of the 17th century by the use of a word or phrase which felt too modern, but it’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the translation and how much to the original text.

Midnight Blue is a light and entertaining novel which I would recommend to readers who have enjoyed other books with Dutch settings such as Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Miniaturist. I read this as part of a blog tour, so if you would like to see more reviews, you can find the rest of the schedule below. And thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of the book for review!

Elizabeth Goudge Day: Towers in the Mist

I have Lory of The Emerald City Book Review to thank for introducing me to the work of Elizabeth Goudge. Last year, for her Elizabeth Goudge Day (hosted on the author’s birthday, 24th April) I read The White Witch, and the year before I read The Child from the Sea. I loved both so there was no question of not taking part again this year – and I had high hopes for my third Goudge novel, Towers in the Mist, which was first published in 1937.

Not all of Goudge’s novels are historical, but it’s the historical ones that I’ve been drawn to first. Towers in the Mist is set in Oxford in the Elizabethan period and, like the other two I’ve read, it’s a truly beautiful novel. It begins on May Day with Faithful Crocker’s first sight of the “fragile city spun out of dreams, so small that he could have held it on the palm of his hand and blown it away into silver mist”. At the age of fourteen, Faithful has found himself alone in the world and has made his way to Oxford where he hopes to achieve his ambition of becoming a scholar and attending university. With no money, no friends and not even any decent clothes to wear, this may seem unlikely, but Faithful’s fortunes improve when he catches the eye of Canon Leigh of Christ Church, who takes him into his household and treats him as one of the family.

Following the death of his wife several years earlier, Canon Leigh has been left to raise his children alone and most of the responsibility has fallen on his eldest daughter, Joyeuce. Joyeuce is devoted to her younger brothers and sisters, but when student Nicolas de Worde enters her life, she will have to decide what is more important to her. We also follow the stories of the domestically-minded Grace, who longs to step out of her sister Joyeuce’s shadow and take control of the Leigh household, and of four-year-old Diccon, who is thought to have been switched at birth as he is so different in looks and temperament to the rest of the family. These are the people with whom Faithful will build his new life, sharing in their small everyday dramas – such as the chaos of the Spring Wash – as well as the larger ones which affect the entire city and university.

I loved getting to know Faithful and the Leighs (and Nicolas, who ended up being one of my favourite characters after undergoing a bit of a transformation which I hadn’t expected at the beginning) but there are also several real historical figures from the Elizabethan age who play a part in the story. The most prominent are the poet Philip Sidney and the poet/explorer Walter Raleigh who, at the time during which the novel is set, are both young men attending university along with Faithful, Nicolas and Giles Leigh. I loved the contrast between the two characters – the flamboyant, daring Raleigh and the quiet, sensitive Sidney – and I enjoyed the little insights we are given into the work of a poet: “The loveliest phrases are winged, and when the poet opens the door of the place where he put them he finds that the tiresome creatures have flown away.”

Each chapter opens with a passage from a poem by Sidney, Raleigh or another 16th century poet and I thought this was a nice touch which helped to set the mood for the story. Goudge admits in her note at the beginning that not everything in the book will be entirely accurate historically, but I think she is very successful at capturing the overall feel of the Elizabethan period even if it may not be correct in every detail.

Towers in the Mist is a lovely book, but it does have a few flaws and could be too sentimental for many modern day readers. Although the descriptions of Oxford are beautiful and Goudge’s own love for the place shines through, sometimes she goes into long digressions on the history of the city and university which add very little to the plot – you either have the patience for that sort of thing or you don’t. As with the other Goudge novels I’ve read, there’s also a strong religious element which won’t be for everyone either (in fact, it’s not really for me, although it didn’t bother me at all when there was so much else to enjoy).

So, that’s three books by Elizabeth Goudge that I’ve read now and three that I’ve loved. Which one should I read next?