My Commonplace Book: December 2020

For the final time this year…

A selection of words and pictures to represent December’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

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‘We live on a river and it has a life of its own,’ Hermann said. ‘Like all waterways, it’ll eventually bring new people to us and also take people away. We don’t exist in a locked box and nor should we try to.’

The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman (2020)

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Humans could never accept the world as it was and live in it. They were always breaking it and living amongst the shattered pieces.

Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb (2013)

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Norwegian stave church

Rumours are the seeds of legends, light enough to spread on the wind, and quick to grow. By the time a truth has put down its root, rumours will have blossomed and become their own truths, because even the wildest fantasy has been told by someone, and this – the fact of something being told by someone – gives it a veracity, even if what is told is more than a little unlikely.

The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting (2018)

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She knew there were good, kind Germans like Wolf, who’d never wanted the war, who emphatically never wanted Hitler. Many Italians hadn’t wanted Mussolini either and so many families on both sides only wanted to get on with living their lives. But war was making monsters of them all.

The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies (2020)

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“A lie doesn’t reproduce external facts faithfully – it is a product of the liar’s own mind, and therefore a clue to the quality and content of his mind. The liar, like any other storyteller, must draw upon his remembered experiences to build his fantasy, and his choice of detail is guided by his tastes and emotions. So if you want to learn something about a man’s emotions and memories listen to his lies.”

The Man in the Moonlight by Helen McCloy (1940)

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Favourite books read in December:

The Bell in the Lake and The Running Wolf

Countries visited in my December reading:

Norway, England, Italy, USA, Germany

Authors read for the first time in December:

Lars Mytting

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Have you read any of these? What did you read in December?

Happy New Year!

Read Christie 2021 and Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2021

I don’t take part in many year-long reading challenges, but there were two that I decided to participate in at the beginning of 2020 and that I will be joining in with again in 2021.

First there was Read Christie 2020, which was hosted by agathachristie.com and involved reading twelve Agatha Christie books, one per month, from twelve different categories. I got off to a great start with this and managed to read the following:

JANUARY – A book that changed Christie’s life…
Murder on the Orient Express

FEBRUARY – A story Christie loved…
A Murder is Announced

MARCH – A Christie story adapted for stage…
The Hollow

APRIL – A story Christie disguised…
Sleeping Murder

After drifting away from this challenge in April, I found it difficult to get back into the routine and didn’t read any more of the monthly books. I’ll be trying again in 2020!

You don’t need to officially sign up for this (the monthly book choice is announced on the website and on Twitter at the beginning of every month), but to get a copy of the postcard showing the categories for 2021, you will need to subscribe to the Agatha Christie newsletter.

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One challenge that I participate in every year is the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, hosted for the last few years by Amy at Passages to the Past, but moving back to one of its former hosts, Marg at The Intrepid Reader, for 2021. Before I post the details of the 2021 challenge, I want to look back at what I achieved in 2020.

I had signed up at the ‘Prehistoric’ level, which meant reading 50+ historical fiction novels during the year. Usually I don’t have a problem completing this, but this year I’ve fallen three short at 47. Here’s what I read:

1. Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau
2. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
3. The Foundling by Stacey Halls
4. The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd
5. The Almanack by Martine Bailey
6. Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney
7. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
8. The Great Matter Monologues by Thomas Crockett
9. Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor
10. Requiem for a Knave by Laura Carlin
11. A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
12. In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse
13. The Animals at Lockwood Manor by Jane Healey
14. Lady of the Highway by Deborah Swift
15. The Missing Sister by Dinah Jefferies
16. Killing Beauties by Pete Langman
17. The Lost Boys of London by Mary Lawrence
18. The Familiars by Stacey Halls
19. The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson
20. The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick
21. Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten
22. Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin
23. The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath
24. The Last Protector by Andrew Taylor
25. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
26. A Vision of Light by Judith Merkle Riley
27. When We Fall by Carolyn Kirby
28. The Silver Collar by Antonia Hodgson
29. Katheryn Howard, the Tainted Queen by Alison Weir
30. The Honey and the Sting by EC Fremantle
31. The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian
32. The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore
33. The Forgotten Sister by Nicola Cornick
34. V2 by Robert Harris
35. The Minion by Rafael Sabatini
36. The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson
37. Royal Flush by Margaret Irwin
38. The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson
39. The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
40. The Tenth Gift by Jane Johnson
41. Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin
42. The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve
43. Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor
44. The Bell in the Lake by Lars Mytting
45. The Tuscan Contessa by Dinah Jefferies
46. The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle
47. The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

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You can find full details on how to take part in the 2021 challenge at Marg’s blog, but here are the most important things to know:

Any sub-genre of historical fiction is accepted (Historical Romance, Historical Mystery, Historical Fantasy, Young Adult, History/Non-Fiction, etc.)

During the following 12 months you can choose one of the different reading levels:

20th Century Reader – 2 books
Victorian Reader – 5 books
Renaissance Reader – 10 books
Medieval – 15 books
Ancient History – 25 books
Prehistoric – 50+ books

I will be aiming for the Prehistoric level again in 2021!

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Are you taking part in either of these – or any other 2021 reading challenges?

Top Ten Tuesday: My favourite books of 2020

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl) asks us to list our top ten favourite books of 2020. I know there are still a few days of 2020 left, but I’m confident that I’m not going to finish anything before the end of the year that would have made it onto my list, so I think it’s safe to post it now!

I have found it difficult to concentrate on reading at times this year (I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why) and I haven’t read as many books as I normally would – the fewest since 2010, in fact. I also feel that, although I’ve read some very good books this year, there aren’t many that really stand out from all the others and I struggled to pick out ten favourites. Instead of ten, then, I am only listing eight – and here they are:

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1. The Expendable Man by Dorothy B Hughes (1963)

From my review: “If you think you might want to read this book, it’s best that you know as little as possible before you begin. And I do highly recommend reading it! I was completely gripped from beginning to end…I couldn’t bear to put the book down until I knew what was going to happen to Hugh.”

2. A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie (1950)

From my review: “Of all the Christie novels I’ve read, this has one of the best openings: first an introduction to each character in turn as we jump from house to house as newspapers are opened and the announcement is read; then the murder scene itself – a wonderful set piece with all of the suspects together in one place. We are given many of the clues we need in that scene and the rest in the chapters that follow, so that the reader has at least a chance of solving the mystery before the truth is revealed.”

3. In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse (1949)

From my review: “Both Hella S Haasse’s recreation of early 15th century France and her portrayal of the key historical figures of the period feel completely real and believable…I loved the imagery Haasse uses in her writing; her descriptions of poppies glowing in green fields, sunlight sparkling on clear water and reflections of clouds in the river unfold like medieval tapestries.”

4. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (2019)

From my review: “You could describe this as a book about a house, but I think of it more as a book about people and the connections between them – in particular, the relationship between a brother and a sister…the bond between them is deep and unbreakable and although there are times when it seems to restrict them from doing things they really want to do and times when it gets in the way of their other relationships, I still found it very moving.”

5. Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2020)

From my review: “I didn’t love this book quite as much as Magpie Murders, probably because I already knew what to expect so it didn’t feel as original, but it was still hugely entertaining and, like the previous novel, packed with word games and other little puzzles cleverly woven into the text. And of course, as an Agatha Christie fan I adore the Atticus Pünd stories in both books, which are such perfect homages to Christie herself. ”

6. Greenwitch by Susan Cooper (1974)

From my review: “Like the previous books in the series, this is an atmospheric and eerie story, steeped in magic and ancient folklore…I found this book as compelling as the first two and read most of it in one day; as a book aimed at younger readers, it’s quite short and the plot moves along at a fast pace, but as an adult there’s still enough depth and complexity to the story and characters to hold my attention.”

7. The Butcher of Berner Street by Alex Reeve (2020)

From my review: “This is one of several new historical mystery series I have been enjoying over the last few years…The plot is well constructed and although I did guess who the murderer was, there were several possible suspects and enough twists and turns to give me a few doubts. More than the plot, though, I loved the setting, the atmosphere and the insights into various aspects of Victorian life: the class differences and the fate of those living in poverty, the early days of the women’s suffrage movement and attitudes towards the Catholic church.”

8. Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin (1924)

From my review: “The book is beautifully written, with the same elegant prose and powerful descriptive writing I’ve loved in the other Margaret Irwin novels I’ve read…The eighteenth century storyline on its own could have been the basis for a compelling novel, but the addition of the ghost story/time travel elements make it something special, particularly as they are handled so well that they feel almost believable. It’s a lovely, magical read and just the sort of thing I was in the mood for at the moment!”

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Have you read any of these?

What are your favourite books of 2020?

The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

I enjoyed Helen Steadman’s Widdershins, a novel about the Newcastle Witch Trials of 1650, but her new book The Running Wolf sounded even more intriguing as it’s set partly in Shotley Bridge, which is just a few miles away from where I live. The novel begins, however, in Solingen, Germany in 1687, where master swordmaker Hermann Mohll is about to make a life-changing decision. Along with several other Solingen swordmakers, Hermann is planning to leave Germany and settle with his family in the North East of England in search of more work and better opportunities.

Arriving in Shotley Bridge, Hermann is kept busy making swords to sell to the English, while his wife Katrin, daughter Liesl and mother Anna – accompanied by Griselda, the one-eared dog – try to adjust to their new lives. The story of the Mohll family alternates with another storyline, set a few years later in the winter of 1703-4 and narrated by Robert Tipstaff, the unpleasant and corrupt keeper of Morpeth Gaol. December is usually a quiet month for Tipstaff, but this year is different; a German smuggler has been captured and brought to Morpeth, but who is he and why is the powerful Earl of Nottingham taking such an interest in him? Could he be a threat to the reign of Queen Anne?

Although Hermann Mohll and some of the other characters are loosely based on real people and the novel is inspired by real historical events, the story Helen Steadman weaves around Hermann and his family is fictional. The book may be set hundreds of years ago, but with themes including immigration, identity and trade, it all feels very relevant. I enjoyed watching the Mohll family and the rest of the group from Solingen settling into their new home and trying to find the right balance between holding on to their German customs and traditions and adopting the way of life of their new English neighbours. While Liesl is keen to learn to speak English and to make friends with the local children, Katrin finds it much more difficult to adjust, having been forced to leave her own mother behind in Solingen. As for Hermann himself, he has moments of doubt and times when he wonders whether he has made the right decision.

The Morpeth chapters, being set several years later, confused me slightly at first, but I soon started to see how the two threads of the novel were linked, although I was still kept in suspense wondering exactly how they would come together and what had led to the situation Tipstaff was describing. These chapters are shorter than the others and add some variety, not just with the change of narrator but also with the difference in writing style and the use of dialect.

The Running Wolf is a fascinating book. When you read a lot of historical fiction, as I do, it’s always nice to come across a subject you’ve never read about before and to be left feeling that you’ve learned something new. I could tell that Helen Steadman had thoroughly researched the lives of the Shotley Bridge swordmakers and I wasn’t surprised to read in the acknowledgments that she had carried out swordmaking training as part of her research, which explains the detailed and believable descriptions of Hermann’s work. As well as being an entertaining story, this was also an educational one for me!

Thanks to the author and Impress Books for providing a copy of this book for review.

Merry Christmas!

Just a quick post to say Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it!

This has been a year like no other. Many of us are unable to have the sort of Christmas this year that we would normally have and I know that there will be a lot of people who, like myself, are spending some or all of the Christmas period alone. Take care – and let’s hope for a better year in 2021!

The Man in the Moonlight by Helen McCloy

I loved Dance of Death, the first book in Helen McCloy’s Dr Basil Willing mystery series which I read last month, so I was pleased to see that Agora Books have now reissued the second in the series, The Man in the Moonlight. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as the first, but it was still a good read and it was nice to meet Dr Willing and Assistant Chief Inspector Foyle again.

Helen McCloy (a pseudonym of Helen Clarkson) was an American crime author whose career spanned five decades and included several standalone books as well as the Basil Willing series. The Man in the Moonlight, first published in 1940, is set during World War II and the war has a part to play in the plot.

Inspector Foyle is visiting Yorkville University, where he is planning to send his son, when he finds a discarded piece of paper with the message: ‘I take pleasure in informing you that you have been chosen as murderer for Group No 1. Please follow these instructions with as great exactness as possible.’ At first Foyle doesn’t take this too seriously – he assumes it’s part of a game of some sort and doesn’t believe that real killers refer to each other as ‘murderers’ anyway – but he is forced to change his mind when Professor Konradi, an Austrian biochemist who escaped from a concentration camp, is found dead in his laboratory.

Konradi’s death appears to be suicide but Foyle isn’t convinced and enlists the help of Dr Basil Willing, psychiatric consultant to the New York District Attorney’s office. As Foyle and Willing begin to investigate, they uncover some intriguing and unexpected aspects of the case, ranging from a psychological experiment being carried out by another of the university professors to the potential involvement of a group of Nazi spies. As in Dance of Death, it’s Willing’s understanding of how the human mind works that leads to the eventual solution.

This is quite a complex mystery novel and incorporates lots of interesting psychological and scientific ideas. The sort of methods Basil Willing uses to obtain the information he needs include lie detector tests and word association tests and I found it fascinating to see him explain his analysis of these tests to the other characters. The focus on the personalities of the suspects, their possible motives and their reasons for behaving the way they do, is much more appealing to me than reading long discussions of alibis and timelines which often dominate other mystery novels and this is one of the reasons why I’m enjoying Helen McCloy’s novels so much. Most of her books are still currently out of print but I’m hoping more of them will be made available by Agora Books soon.

The Woman in the Painting by Kerry Postle

Of the major Renaissance artists, I think Raphael is probably slightly less well known than Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. In Kerry Postle’s novel The Woman in the Painting she explores not only the life and work of the man himself but the story of his mistress and model, Margarita Luti. It is thought that Margarita, known as La Fornarina, may have been the subject of Raphael’s painting of the same name and although we don’t know this for certain, Postle takes this theory as the basis for the novel.

We see the relationship between Raphael and Margarita develop through the eyes of Pietro, a young man who, at the beginning of the novel, has just become an apprentice to the artist Sebastiano Luciani (later known as Sebastiano del Piombo). Although Pietro’s duties are limited to cleaning brushes and grinding pigments, he works hard and learns from his master and the more experienced apprentices, but despite knowing that he has been given a wonderful opportunity, he can’t help feeling that Sebastiano’s paintings lack true greatness. Following an accident in the workshop, Pietro is dismissed from his position and thrown out into the street, where he is rescued by Margarita, one of Sebastiano’s models. It is when Pietro is offered a new apprenticeship with Raphael, who is newly arrived in Rome, that Margarita is introduced to Raphael for the first time.

It’s not long before Margarita is sitting for Raphael’s paintings and beginning to fall in love with the artist, but as a woman from a humble background – she’s the daughter of a baker – she is not seen as a suitable wife for Raphael. Meanwhile Pietro is also finding himself attracted to Raphael and the affection he had first felt for Margarita soon turns to jealousy.

I enjoyed The Woman in the Painting, although I think I might have preferred it to have been narrated by Margarita. I felt that the choice of Pietro as narrator held me at a distance from Raphael and Margarita and stopped me from fully understanding their relationship and the emotions involved. The focus instead was more on Pietro’s feelings of envy and resentment and the ways in which he acted on these feelings to try to cause trouble for Margarita and get closer to Raphael himself. Still, Pietro was a complex and very human character and although I didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for him, I couldn’t actually dislike him either.

I didn’t really know a lot about Raphael before I started to read this book, so I found that I was learning a lot from it. The descriptions of the day to day work of the artist and his apprentices in the studio particularly interested me. As recently as 2001, X-ray analysis showed that the woman depicted in La Fornarina had originally worn a ruby ring on her finger which was painted over at some point. There is no historical proof for the explanation Postle gives for this in the novel, but it works in the context of the story. We also see, from Pietro’s perspective, the political situation in Rome at that time and get to know some of the historical figures of the period, including not only Raphael, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, but also Agostino Chigi, Raphael’s patron, and Cardinal Bibbiena, to whose niece Raphael was engaged.

This is the first Kerry Postle novel I’ve read, but I see she has written a few others including The Artist’s Muse, about Gustav Klimt and his model Wally Neuzil. Has anyone read that one and what did you think?

Thanks to HQ Digital for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.