My Commonplace Book: November 2018

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

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

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We know what causes the plants to grow and multiply, so to feed the planet and ourselves. We know how to harness the hidden forces of the world to pump water from the mines, to send engines down tracks, to speed our massive ships to the far ends of the Earth. We know what fixes the stars in their heavens.

But the engine which powers all these transitions, the mighty organ that is the Mind of man, remains an essential mystery to us.

Savage Magic by Lloyd Shepherd (2014)

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“The spell for finding books,” she whispered, closing her eyes before pronouncing the incantation. “Abracadabra, Alakazam, Angela Thirkell and Omar Khayyam.”

I had never seen my sister so excited.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place by Alan Bradley (2018)

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Illustrated page by Ernest Clegg.

She shook her head and mopped up a drop of paint with a damp cloth. “Not yet. But at least my lack of forward planning isn’t worrying me quite so much now.”

“That’s good,” he said. “If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my life, it’s that worrying over your future can be a waste of energy.”

The Poppy Field by Deborah Carr (2018)

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She loved the way a photograph could tell an entire story and preserve it in a single moment. She hoped she’d be able to take more pictures inspired by her heart and not just by her head, and, if she could manage to get out and about and grasp something of the mysterious quality of the ordinary people, she’d be happy.

Before the Rains by Dinah Jefferies (2017)

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But above all, there were books. Books were my consolation. For if I could not walk into the bright, blowing world I could, at least, read of it; books, I was told, contained it all.

House of Glass by Susan Fletcher (2018)

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Agatha Christie never described it, nor did any other mystery writer I can think of: that moment when the detective works it out and the truth makes itself known. Why did Poirot never twirl his moustache? Why didn’t Lord Peter Wimsey dance in the air? I would have.

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz (2018)

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Jan Willem Pieneman’s ‘The Battle of Waterloo’ (1824).

Some of the senior officers were looking grave; here and there a rigid, meaningless smile was pinned to a mother’s white face, or a girl stood with a fallen mouth, and blank eyes fixed on a scarlet uniform. A queer, almost greedy emotion shone in many countenances. Life had become suddenly an urgent business, racing towards disaster, and the craving for excitement, the breathless moment compound of fear, and grief, and exaltation, when the mind sharpened and the senses were stretched as taut as the strings of a violin, surged up under the veneer of good manners, and shone behind the dread in shocked young eyes.

An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (1937)

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“Yes — by my every hope of Heaven!” I cried passionately.

She continued to survey me with that quiet smile of mocking scorn.

“I have heard it said,” quoth she, “that the greatest liars are ever those that are readiest to take oath.”

Bardelys the Magificent by Rafael Sabatini (1906)

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Although plenty of young Italians were filled with excitement, they were the minority. ‘The news of war’ noted Mussolini’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister, Count Galeazzo Ciano, in his diary, ‘does not arouse much enthusiasm. I am sad, very sad. The adventure begins. May God help Italy.’

The Desert War by James Holland (2018)

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Prospero, Ariel and sleeping Miranda from a painting by William Hamilton

Is the island magic? Felix asks himself. The island is many things, but among them is something he hasn’t mentioned: the island is a theatre. Prospero is a director. He’s putting on a play, within which there’s another play. If his magic holds and his play is successful, he’ll get his heart’s desire. But if he fails…

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (2016)

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You seek a false comfort when you demand that I define myself for you with words. Words do not contain or define any person. A heart can, if it is willing.

The Golden Fool by Robin Hobb (2002)

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To be entirely engrossed with today, with meals and motor-cars and work and play, is a short-sighted selfishness. Have time to remember the child you were, give him a deep thought now and then, be sensitive to all you can of the past, and it will reward you with bright shoots of everlastingness. To live in the present moment is easy, any animal does it: to live in eternity is really to live.

The Trap by Dan Billany (1950)

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Favourite books read in November:

The Golden Fool and The Sentence is Death

Where did my reading take me in November?

England, North Africa, India, France, Canada, Belgium – and Robin Hobb’s fictional Six Duchies.

Authors read for the first time in November:

Deborah Carr, Lloyd Shepherd, Dan Billany and James Holland

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Have you read any of these books? Which books did you enjoy in November?

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

This month I’ve been taking part in Nonfiction November, but it’s also Margaret Atwood Reading Month hosted by Naomi at Consumed by Ink and Marcie at BuriedInPrint. I was planning to read one of her longer books – The Blind Assassin or possibly Cat’s Eye, but I found myself running out of time towards the end of the month, so I decided on the much shorter Hag-Seed instead. This book is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series of retellings of Shakespeare’s plays by modern authors.

Felix Phillips had a successful career as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival until his assistant, Tony, betrayed him and took his job. Forced to abandon his plans to stage a contemporary version of The Tempest – a play close to his heart, having recently lost his three-year-old daughter Miranda (who shared her name with Shakespeare’s heroine) – Felix drops out of public life and begins to plot his revenge. Under the name of Mr Duke, he applies for a position at Fletcher Correctional, helping to improve the literacy of the prisoners. Here he will have his chance to direct The Tempest after all, while making his enemies pay for what they have done.

The Tempest is a play that I know quite well, although I wish I’d found time to re-read it before starting Hag-Seed. I’m tempted to do that now, but I think reading them in the opposite order would have been more helpful! I enjoyed watching the prisoners as they study the play for the first time and try to interpret it in their own unique way (could Ariel have been an alien rather than a fairy? Would Shakepeare’s songs be improved by rewriting them as rap?) Personally, when it comes to adaptations of books and plays, I don’t usually like to see things being modernised or given ‘contemporary twists’, but even so it was good to see the Fletcher Correctional Players having so much fun and being so inventive.

Felix plays Prospero, the magician and rightful Duke of Milan, in the prisoners’ production, but he also fills the role of Prospero in the framing narrative. The prison represents the magical island to which Prospero is exiled, while Tony is clearly the equivalent of Prospero’s usurping brother, Antonio. Events in Felix’s life mirror events from The Tempest, coincidentally at the beginning, but then intentionally as he begins to orchestrate his plan for revenge. And of course, even as Felix controls and manipulates the other characters, we know that he is also a character and a prisoner, caught between the pages of Margaret Atwood’s novel, controlled and manipulated by Atwood herself.

Having some familiarity with the play does make it easier to understand and unravel the many layers of Hag-Seed, but if you’re not familiar with it, that shouldn’t be a problem as the whole story is told at various points in the novel, in various different ways (including a full summary at the end of the book). We can learn along with the prisoners as they try to identify the nine types of prison portrayed in the play and as they write an analysis of their chosen character and imagine how his or her story might continue after the play comes to an end. I particularly enjoyed the contributions made by Anne-Marie Greenland, the actress and dancer Felix brings in to play the part of Miranda.

As for the real Miranda – Felix’s daughter who died as a child – the novel is as much about Felix’s feelings for her and his inability to let things go and move on as it is about anything else. Without saying too much, I really liked the way that part of the story was resolved and the way the novel ended.

I must read some of those longer Atwood novels soon – and I would like to try another of the Hogarth Shakespeare books too.

Classics Club Spin #19: The Result

The result of the latest Classics Club Spin has been revealed today!

The idea of the Spin was to list twenty books from my Classics Club list, number them 1 to 20, and the number announced today (Tuesday) represents the book I have to read before 31st January 2019. The number that has been selected is…

1

And this means the book I need to read is…

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens

To Paul Dombey, business is all and money can do anything. He runs his family life as he runs his firm: coldly, calculatingly and commercially. The only person he cares for is his frail son, grooming him for entry into the family business; his daughter Florence, abandoned and ignored, craves affection from her unloving father, who sees her only as a ‘base coin that couldn’t be invested’. As Dombey’s callousness extends to others – from his defiant second wife Edith, to Florence’s admirer Walter Gay – he sows the seeds of his own destruction. Can this heartless businessman be redeemed?

A compelling depiction of a man imprisoned by his own pride, Dombey and Son explores the devastating effects of emotional deprivation on a dysfunctional family and on society as a whole.

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I’m glad I have until the end of January to read this book, as it was probably the longest on my list! I’m happy with this result as it’s been a while since I read any Dickens, but I was hoping for Nicholas Nickleby rather than this one.

Have you read Dombey and Son? Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

Top Ten Tuesday: Friends and family

The topic for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl is:

Platonic Relationships In Books (friendships, parent/child, siblings, family, etc.)

Romantic relationships in books usually get most of the attention, but often the relationships I find the strongest or the most moving are the ones between family and friends. Here are ten of my favourites. I could have included many more!

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1. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

I wanted to start my list with some fictional sisters and naturally the March girls were the first to come to mind! Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy don’t always get along, but as sisters there’s an unbreakable bond between them. I think part of the appeal is that the four all have such different personalities, so most readers will be able to identify with at least one of them.

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2. D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis (The Three Musketeers and sequels by Alexandre Dumas)

All for one and one for all! I had to include this classic tale of friendship on my list. Like the sisters in Little Women, d’Artagnan and his three friends each have very different character traits, which means that most readers will be able to pick a favourite. In the later books in the series, the four of them are leading separate lives of their own, only interacting occasionally, but it’s the relationship between them that makes the first book such a joy to read.

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3. Francis and Richard Crawford (The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett)

This wonderful series contains lots of relationships, platonic and otherwise, which are developed over the course of the six novels, but one I find particularly interesting is the one between our hero, Francis Crawford of Lymond, and his brother, Richard. To say that they don’t always see eye to eye would be an understatement and following the ups and downs of their relationship from The Game of Kings to Checkmate was one of my favourite aspects of the series.

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4. Claire Fraser and Jenny Murray (the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon)

As with the Lymond Chronicles above, there are many relationships in the Outlander series that I could have featured here, but I have chosen the one between Claire Fraser and her sister-in-law Jenny Murray, one of the most long-standing in the series, being formed in the first book of eight. Their relationship changes a lot throughout the series as Claire travels the world having adventures while Jenny stays at home on the family estate in Scotland; sometimes they are barely speaking, while at others they’re the best of friends.

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5. Fitz and Nighteyes (The Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies by Robin Hobb)

I’m currently in the middle of the Tawny Man trilogy, so this relationship came quickly to mind. Nighteyes is a wolf, but in Hobb’s fantasy world the bond he shares with Fitz is far stronger than the bond you would usually expect between a human and an animal. There are several occasions where Fitz owes his life to Nighteyes and vice versa.

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6. Bishop Jean Marie Latour and Father Joseph Vaillant (Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather)

The two central characters in Willa Cather’s 1927 novel are French missionaries who are sent into the newly formed diocese of New Mexico in the nineteenth century. They are very different men and I found the depiction of the friendship between the warm, friendly Vaillant and the quiet, reserved Latour very moving.

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7. Atticus, Jem and Scout Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

This 1960 classic is a favourite of many people, including myself, and one of the reasons for that is surely the relationship at the heart of the novel between lawyer Atticus Finch and his children, Jem and Jean Louise (Scout). It’s a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding; Scout and Jem learn a lot of important lessons from their father, but they have a lot to offer him in return.

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8. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin (the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian)

I’m not usually a fan of nautical fiction, but I am now six books into Patrick O’Brian’s seafaring series and looking forward to reading the seventh. I still don’t know my mainsail from my topsail, but the friendship between Royal Navy Captain Jack Aubrey and ship’s surgeon and spy Stephen Maturin is enough for me to keep reading.

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9. Arthur Bryant and John May (Bryant and May series by Christopher Fowler)

These two eighty-year-old detectives have the perfect partnership, each bringing a very different approach to crime-solving. May is practical, logical and ready to embrace modern technology, while the eccentric Bryant prefers to rely on clairvoyants, witches and his own arcane knowledge. Their differences could explain how they’ve had so much success over the years and have remained such good friends.

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10. Flavia, Ophelia and Daphne de Luce (the Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley)

I started my list with sisters, so will finish with sisters. The relationship between twelve-year-old Flavia and her two older sisters is one that has frustrated me since the beginning of the series. Why do they dislike each other so much? Why are Feely and Daffy so cruel to Flavia? Nine books into the series, there are finally some signs that their relationship is starting to improve, but it has taken a long time!

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Have you read any of these? What are your favourite platonic relationships in fiction?

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz

I loved The Word is Murder, Anthony Horowitz’s first book to feature the detective Daniel Hawthorne, so when I heard that there was going to be a second book I couldn’t wait to read it. I didn’t have to wait too long, as this one has been published only a year after the first, and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed it just as much, if not more.

When high profile divorce lawyer Richard Pryce is found bludgeoned to death with an expensive bottle of wine, the culprit seems quite obvious. Just days earlier, Pryce had been threatened by a client’s ex-wife who poured a glass of wine over his head in a restaurant. Surely that can’t be a coincidence? But Pryce has plenty of other enemies, whose identities come to light as investigations continue. Could one of them have wanted him dead? And what is the significance of the numbers painted on the wall near Pryce’s body? As this is clearly a more complex case than it seemed at first, ex-police detective Hawthorne is asked to assist with solving the crime.

Having worked with Hawthorne on his previous mystery in The Word is Murder, author Anthony Horowitz reluctantly agrees to team up with him again and document the progress of the investigations in a second book, The Sentence is Death. Hawthorne is supposed to be the hero of the book, but this time Anthony decides to do some detecting of his own in the hope of reaching the solution first. Can he solve the mystery before Hawthorne does?

If this sounds confusing, I should explain that, as in the previous novel, Horowitz is a character in his own book. The Anthony in the story is clearly based on the author himself – he frequently discusses his career as a novelist and screenwriter and refers to his wife and his publisher by name – yet he interacts with fictional characters, takes part in fictional storylines and struggles to solve the mystery the real Horowitz has created. I think it’s a clever concept and great fun, though not everyone will agree – it’s probably something you’ll either love or you won’t.

It’s not really necessary to have read the first book before starting this one as the mysteries are entirely separate. Like the first, this is a strong, well-constructed mystery with plenty of clues but plenty of red herrings as well. I didn’t manage to solve it (I confess that I allowed myself to be distracted and misled by every one of those red herrings) but I was happy to be kept in suspense and wait for Hawthorne – or Anthony, of course, if he got there first – to explain it all for me.

However, I would still recommend reading both books in order if you can, so that you can watch the progression of Anthony’s relationship with Hawthorne. Hawthorne is no more pleasant or likeable now than he was when we first met him in The Word is Murder, and he is still every bit as much of an enigma, but we do pick up a few new bits of information about him here, with some glimpses of his home and his life away from his detection work. I think he’s a great character, for all of his flaws, and I love his partnership with the fictional Anthony.

When I read the first novel I found the details of Anthony’s publishing and television career a slight distraction from the main plot, but in this book they seemed to form a more intrinsic part of the story and I liked that aspect much more. Horowitz seems to be having fun at the expense of his fictional self, as Anthony stumbles from one disaster to another; I particularly enjoyed the opening scenes on the set of Foyle’s War and a later scene involving the theft of a book – and I’m curious to know whether the literary fiction author Akira Anno was based on a real person (although if she was, I doubt her true identity will ever be revealed).

I loved this book – and the good news for Horowitz and Hawthorne fans is that there’s going to be a third.

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

Nonfiction November Week 4: Reads Like Fiction

For Week 4 of Nonfiction November, we are asked to consider the following questions:

(Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (hosted by Rennie at What’s Nonfiction?): Nonfiction books often get praised for how they stack up to fiction. Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel? If it does, what gives it that fiction-like feeling? Does it depend on the topic, the writing, the use of certain literary elements and techniques? What are your favorite nonfiction recommendations that read like fiction? And if your nonfiction picks could never be mistaken for novels, what do you love about the differences?

I don’t really expect nonfiction to feel like fiction, so I tend to approach it in a different frame of mind and hoping to gain different things from it. The type of nonfiction I read most often is history and I think there does need to be a distinction between historical nonfiction and historical fiction.

When I read historical fiction I want the author to create a realistic and convincing historical setting which has been thoroughly researched and to stick to the facts as far as possible regarding things such as dates, outcomes of battles, major events, the clothes people would have worn and the food they would have eaten. However, I also want to be entertained by a good story which will take me through a range of emotions and I want the author to bring the characters to life, showing me how they thought, how they felt and what they said. When writing fiction, the author can obviously use their imagination to do these things, but with nonfiction it’s more difficult and sometimes impossible.

In Alison Weir’s biography of Elizabeth of York, for example, because there is a limit to what we can know about Elizabeth from a distance of five hundred years, there are lots of occasions where she speculates on what Elizabeth might have done or thought and uses the words ‘probably’ and ‘maybe’. This is obviously much more of a problem with nonfiction than with fiction, and although I did enjoy that book overall, I would have preferred to stick to the known facts.

Going back to the questions posed at the beginning of this post, I think there are definitely certain literary elements and techniques that can be used to give a book a more fiction-like feeling. The Plantagenets by Dan Jones is a good example: I mentioned in my review that “instead of just telling us that Henry I’s son died in a shipwreck, he describes the sails of the ship billowing in the wind, the shouts of the crew and the freezing water pouring into the ship.” This sort of detail can add life and colour and make a nonfiction book feel more like a novel.

I think it does depend on the type of nonfiction, though. Autobiographies and memoirs can often feel much more fictional than an impersonal biography of a historical figure; the author is writing about his or her own life, so they can draw on firsthand experience, they can talk about their thoughts, words and actions, and they probably don’t need to resort to imagination or speculation to fill in gaps.

One book that I think gets the fiction/nonfiction balance right and that has an element of autobiography is Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I described it in my review as “the most riveting non-fiction book I’ve ever read – I kept thinking ‘I’ll just read a few more pages’ then an hour later I was still sitting there unable to put the book down.” Because Jung Chang is writing about her own family history – her grandmother, her mother and herself – Wild Swans has a personal feel which gives it the sort of power and emotion I love in fiction. Knowing that it is a true story makes it an even more moving and compelling read.

At the other end of the scale are books that could never be mistaken for fiction and aren’t intended to be, such as reference books and books of facts and figures. Books like The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction and The Renaissance: The Best One-Hour History feel nothing like novels and I wouldn’t expect or want them to!

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What are your opinions on this? Does it matter to you whether nonfiction reads like a novel?

Classics Club Spin #19: My List

The Classics Club

I love taking part in the spins hosted by The Classics Club – this is the nineteenth and although I’ve missed one or two I think I’ve managed to participate in most of them. If you’re not sure what the spins involve, here’s a reminder:

The rules for Spin #19:

* List any twenty books you have left to read from your Classics Club list.
* Number them from 1 to 20.
* On Tuesday 27th November the Classics Club will announce a number.
* This is the book you need to read by 31st January 2019.

And here is my list:

1. Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens
2. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
3. La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas
4. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
5. The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope
6. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
7. In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S Haasse
8. Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham
9. The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott
10. Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
11. Germinal by Emile Zola
12. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
13. Claudius the God by Robert Graves
14. The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford
15. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
16. The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter
17. The Long Ships by Frans G Bengtsson
18. The Cloister and the Hearth by Charles Reade
19. The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni
20. Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

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We’ve been given more time than usual to read our book for this spin, so I’ve tried to include lots of long books here. I think most of them have over 400 pages, although one or two are slightly shorter. I don’t mind which one I get, as I’ll be reading them all eventually anyway.

Have you read any of these books? Which number do you think I should be hoping for on Tuesday?