My Commonplace Book: September 2016

A summary of last month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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york-minster

Another high wall appeared ahead of us; York seemed a city of walls. Behind it the Minster loomed. Ahead was a large open space crowded with market stalls under brightly striped awnings that flapped in the cool damp breeze. Heavy-skirted goodwives argued with stallholders while artisans in the bright livery of their guilds looked down their noses at the stalls’ contents, and dogs and ragged children dived for scraps. I saw most of the people had patched clothes and worn-looking clogs. Watchmen in livery bearing the city arms stood about, observing the crowds.

Sovereign by CJ Sansom (2006)

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But whereas the planets are serene in their separateness, knowing any collision with one another likely to destroy them and return them to dust, Fogg remarks that he, along with very many of his race, finds his Separateness the most entirely sad fact of his existence and is every moment hopeful of colliding with someone who will obscure it from his mind.

Restoration by Rose Tremain (1989)

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elizabeth-of-york

“Do you like history?” he enquired.

“Oh, yes.” She turned eagerly to him, forgetting momentarily the splendour of the pageant. “It is about people, you see. The deeds they performed. The way they thought.”

Elizabeth the Beloved by Maureen Peters (1972)

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Writing is a kind of magic. One person sits in a room alone and makes marks on a page that represent the images in her mind. Another person looks at those marks, weeks or months or a hundred years later, and similar images appear in that person’s mind. Magic. Plays and choreography hold yet another level of magic and meaning: the marks on the page leap to action in another person’s body, to be seen by thousands of others. The ability to weave that kind of magic paid well in Las Vegas.

The Hawley Book of the Dead by Chrysler Szarlan (2014)

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He was a good husband. He had comforted her when she’d sobbed violently against his plump chest, then rested dry-eyed against it and tried not to remember all the things she no longer knew about her son. How tall was he now? Had the colour of his hair changed? Did he still wake sometimes in the middle of the night unable to breathe? Did he still like to find beetles in the cracks in a stone wall, or to look for hidden things beneath a rock?
Did he remember her at all?

Rebellion by Livi Michael (2015)

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king-david

But the stories that grow up around a king are strong vines with a fierce grip. They pull life from whatever surfaces they cling to, while the roots, maybe, wither and rot until you cannot find the place from which the seed of the vine has truly sprung.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (2015)

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Three telephones kept ringing like demented things, and by post, telegram, wireless, and personal appearance the information poured in. Nine-tenths of it quite useless, but all of it requiring a hearing: some of it requiring much investigation before its uselessness became apparent. Grant looked at the massed pile of reports, and his self-control deserted him for a little.

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey (1936)

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“It is the only thing I know of to his advantage,” Judith said. “I will admit him to be an excellent whip. But for the rest I find him a mere fop, a creature of affectations, tricked out in modish clothes, thinking snuff to be of more moment than events of real importance. He is proud, he can be insolent. There is a reserve, a lack of openness—I must not say any more: I shall put myself in a rage, and that will not do.”

Regency Buck by Georgette Heyer (1935)

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courbette

I heard the fanfare and recognised it; it was the entrance of Annalisa and her white stallion. The trumpets cut through the air, silver, clear and commanding. Old Piebald stopped grazing and lifted his head, with his ears cocked as one imagines a war horse might at the smell of battle and the trumpets. Then the music changed, sweet, lilting and golden, as the orchestra stole into the waltz from The Rosenkavalier.

Airs Above the Ground by Mary Stewart (1965)

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In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)

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“I might be wrong, but I fancy that however much a girl may admire, or envy, the heroine of some romance, who finds herself in the most extraordinary situations; and however much she may picture herself in those situations, she knows it is nothing more than a child’s game of make-believe, and that she would not, in fact, behave at all like her heroine.”

Black Sheep by Georgette Heyer (1966)

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nondescript

“You’re not shy, Julia,” he said. “It’s what I noticed first about you. How calmly you faced the world with that stupendous, utterly unnatural face of yours, and of course – you know the spirit in which I say that, it’s merely a stated fact – I knew then you were a natural. No no, there’s no doubt in my mind, no doubt at all, but that you’ll thrive.”

Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch (2016)

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It happens this way sometimes, we can discover truths about ourselves in a moment, sometimes in the midst of drama, sometimes quietly. A sunset wind can be blowing off the sea, we might be alone in bed on a winter night, or grieving by a grave among leaves. We are drunk at a tavern, dealing with desperate pain, waiting to confront enemies on a battlefield. We are bearing a child, falling in love, reading by candlelight, watching the sun rise, a star set, we are dying…

But there is something else to all of this, because of how the world is for us, how we are within it. Something can be true of our deepest nature and the running tide of days and years might let it reach the shore, be made real there — or not.

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (2016)

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Favourite books read in September: Sovereign, Airs Above the Ground and Black Sheep

A Shilling for Candles by Josephine Tey

A Shilling for Candles My first read for this year’s RIP event is this 1936 mystery from Josephine Tey. It’s only the second book I’ve read by Tey – the other was The Daughter of Time, in which Inspector Alan Grant attempts to solve the mystery of Richard III and the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower from his hospital bed. A Shilling for Candles also features Alan Grant but this time he is investigating the murder of Christine Clay, an actress whose body is found washed up on the beach on the south coast of England.

At first it seems that the cause of Christine’s death is either suicide or a tragic accident, but when a coat button is found tangled in her hair it becomes obvious that someone else must have been involved. Suspicion immediately falls upon Robin Tisdall, a young man who has been staying with Christine in her cottage near the beach, but Grant soon has a whole list of other suspects. Could it have been Christine’s rich, aristocratic husband? The American songwriter with whom she is thought to be having an affair? What about her fellow actresses, who could be jealous of Christine’s success, or Lydia Keats, the eccentric astrologer who casts celebrity horoscopes? And then, of course, there’s Christine’s estranged brother, Herbert, who has been left “a shilling for candles” in her will.

I was intrigued by the mystery and enjoyed getting to know the characters; my favourite was Erica Burgoyne, the Chief Constable’s teenage daughter who has an encounter with one of the suspects in the middle of the novel and is inspired to do some investigating of her own. I also liked Tey’s portrayal of life as a celebrity – particularly her descriptions of the negative side of fame and the difficulties famous people can experience in trying to keep their private lives private.

However, I have to confess that I found this book disappointing overall. There just seemed to be too much going on: too many red herrings and too much time spent developing storylines that didn’t really go anywhere. I thought the plot lacked structure and the final solution of the mystery seemed to come out of nowhere – unless I missed an important clue, which is entirely possible! I’m wondering whether the problems I had with this novel could be due to the fact that it’s one of Tey’s earliest; I thought The Daughter of Time (1951) was much better than this one, so maybe her writing improved over the years. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books at some point, so I’ll be able to find out.

If you’ve read anything by Josephine Tey, I’d love to know which of her other books you would recommend. Also, has anyone seen Young and Innocent, the Alfred Hitchcock film based on this book?

Classics Club Monthly Meme: Question #42 – Science Fiction and Mysteries

The Classics Club

On the 26th of each month the Classics Club post a question for members to answer during the following month. It’s been a while since I last participated so I’ve decided to join in with this one. The question below was contributed by club member Fariba:

“What is your favourite mystery or science fiction classic? Why do you think it is a classic? Why do you like it?”

I haven’t read a huge number of classics from either of these genres, so rather than pick favourites I’m simply going to write about a few books I’ve enjoyed which fall into each category. First, let’s look at classic mysteries…

Mysteries

And Then There Were None The first author to come to mind when I think about classic mysteries is Agatha Christie. Although I haven’t read all of her books yet (not even half of them), I’ve loved most of those that I have read, particularly And Then There Were None. It’s such a simple idea – ten strangers are cut off from the world on an isolated island and start to be killed off one by one – but the solution is fiendishly clever!

My next choice is from the Victorian period: a book which TS Eliot famously described as “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels”. It’s The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, a novel which centres around the disappearance of a valuable Indian diamond. As anyone who has read it will know, the mystery itself is almost secondary to the wonderful array of memorable narrators, especially Gabriel Betteredge, the elderly servant.

With my interest in history, I also enjoyed The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey, in which a detective recuperating in hospital decides to amuse himself by trying to solve the mystery of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower. In 1990 this book came top of the British Crime Writers’ Association’s Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other mysteries yet, but I have A Shilling for Candles on my shelf to read soon.

Science Fiction

The Midwich Cuckoos A few years ago I read and loved The Midwich Cuckoos, a classic science fiction novel about a mysterious phenomenon which occurs in a quiet English village. I was (and still am) intending to read more of John Wyndham’s books, but haven’t got round to it yet. I know some of his other novels are regarded as being better than this one, so I’m looking forward to trying them for myself.

HG Wells is one of the most famous authors of classic science fiction and so far I have read two of his books – The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. I enjoyed both of these novels but I didn’t find either of them entirely satisfying. In the case of The Time Machine in particular, I felt that there were a lot of ideas which could have been explored in more depth. I’m sure I’ll read more of Wells’ novels eventually.

If I can also class dystopian novels as science fiction, there are quite a few that I’ve read including, years ago, 1984 by George Orwell and Brave New World by Aldous Huxley and, more recently, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Otherwise, I really haven’t read much science fiction at all and would love some recommendations!

Have you read any classic mystery or science fiction novels? Which are your favourites?

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Inspector Alan Grant is in hospital recovering from a broken leg. In an attempt to alleviate his boredom, his friend Marta encourages him to investigate an unsolved mystery from his hospital bed. When she brings Grant a picture of Richard III, he’s immediately intrigued. Richard, of course, is widely believed to have murdered his two young nephews, the sons of his brother King Edward IV, to secure his own claim to the throne after Edward’s death. Grant, however, is not convinced. How can this kind, sensitive face belong to one of the most notorious murderers of all time? Over the next few weeks, Grant reads everything he can find about Richard and his alleged crimes, and makes some surprising discoveries about this controversial king.

With my interest in the Plantagenets, the Wars of the Roses, and Richard III in particular, I expected to enjoy this book and I did. It doesn’t compare to Sharon Kay Penman’s wonderful The Sunne in Splendour, which I read last year, but then, it’s a completely different type of book.

Much as I happen to agree with Josephine Tey that Richard has been unfairly treated, this book is obviously very biased in his favour. But the argument she makes for Richard’s innocence is certainly very convincing. She shows how Grant takes one source at a time, looks at who wrote it (often one of Richard’s enemies) and what the writer’s motive could have been in discrediting Richard. The book also considers Richard’s possible motives and what reasons he may have had for committing (or not committing) the crimes of which he was accused.

As Alan Grant, at the beginning of the novel, knows very little about Richard III it means that the reader doesn’t need to have a lot of prior knowledge either and can learn along with Grant. In fact, from reading other reviews it seems that for many people this book has been their first introduction to this period of history. If, like me, you’ve already read one or two books about Richard and have some basic knowledge of the subject, The Daughter of Time is still a fascinating read. I was surprised that the Duke of Buckingham was hardly mentioned, as he is usually considered along with Richard and Henry Tudor to be one of the main suspects for the murder of the two princes. Tey also suggests that the princes were still alive when Henry VII took the throne, which is interesting as the general opinion now seems to be that they died during Richard’s reign.

But whether we agree with Tey’s theories or not isn’t really important. What is important is that we’re aware of the unreliability of many historical sources and how we have to be very careful because something that is now considered to be ‘historical fact’ may actually originate from nothing more than lies or rumours.