My Commonplace Book: March 2016

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

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He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)

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Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)

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Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)

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Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)

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The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)

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Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)

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As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)

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Jane_Eyre_title_page

Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)

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“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)

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Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)

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“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)

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Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)

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Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor

The Children of Dynmouth I always believe in giving an author a second chance, so after a failed attempt at reading William Trevor’s Love and Summer a few years ago, I have still been interested in trying more of his work. As March is Reading Ireland Month (hosted by Cathy and Niall) and Trevor is an Irish author, this seemed a good time to give another of his books a try.

Published in 1976, The Children of Dynmouth is set in a typical English seaside town full of ordinary people leading ordinary lives – at least on the surface. Fifteen-year-old Timothy Gedge, who wanders the streets of Dynmouth watching and listening, knows what is really going on behind closed doors and inside people’s heads…and he’s not afraid to use that information to his own advantage. As family scandals, hidden passions and secret affairs are brought to light, the adults and children of Dynmouth begin to wonder what Timothy’s motives really are.

Timothy Gedge is a sinister creation, at the heart of all the tension in Dynmouth, although it’s never quite clear whether or not he is fully aware of the trouble he is causing and the inappropriateness of his actions. The first real indication that something is badly wrong comes when we learn that he is planning to enter the annual Spot the Talent contest with a gruesome ‘comedy act’ which no decent person could possibly find funny. When several obstacles are placed in the way of his act – the lack of a curtain for the stage, for example, and the need for a man’s suit and a wedding dress – Timothy goes to great lengths to get what he wants, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.

With no father in his life and a mother who neglects him, Timothy has been left to fend for himself and has grown up to be a lonely, awkward teenager facing the usual fate of Dynmouth’s young men: a lifetime spent working in the town’s sandpaper factory. The people of Dynmouth can’t get away from him as he tries to connect with them in any way he can; he is everywhere they turn, listening to private conversations, staring through windows, inviting himself into their homes, asking questions, hiding in the shadows and lurking in the background at funerals. Nobody likes him and nobody wants him there, but as a representation of all that is wrong with society, he can be seen as everybody’s responsibility and everybody’s problem.

Timothy is an unsettling character – and this is an unsettling novel. It’s a short book at under 200 pages, but long enough for the author to build up a complete portrait of life in a small community in 1970s England, to introduce us to the people who live there, and to add undercurrents of danger and foreboding, so that by the end of the novel we go away with a very different impression of Dynmouth than we had at the beginning.

The Children of Dynmouth is a disturbing but thought-provoking book and one which left me with a lot to think about after I turned the final page. I would like to read more by William Trevor, so your recommendations are welcome. I’m prepared to try Love and Summer again too, as I think I was probably just in the wrong mood for it the first time.

Five recent reads that I couldn’t finish

How often do you start a book and find that you can’t finish it? Maybe you didn’t like the writing, maybe you couldn’t connect with the characters, or maybe it was just the wrong book at the wrong time. I hate leaving books unfinished, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do. Luckily it doesn’t happen to me very often, but there have still been quite a few books that I’ve started reading recently and for one reason or another have had to abandon. If you’ve read any of these, do you think they’re worth trying again?


A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin

What’s it about?
A present day historian, Una Pryor, researches the lives of Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, and her brother Anthony, and begins to uncover the mystery of the Princes in the Tower.
What was the problem?
With my interest in the Wars of the Roses I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t. There were three different threads of the story, one narrated by Una, one by Elizabeth and one by Anthony – and they were all set in different time periods, which I found very confusing. The historical sections didn’t feel very atmospheric and the modern section seemed too disconnected. I’m sure that if I’d kept reading the three storylines would probably have been brought together eventually, but I gave up after almost 100 pages.
Would I try it again?
Probably not.

The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer

What’s it about?
Set during the Peninsular War, this is the story of Brigade-Major Harry Smith and his Spanish wife, Juana.
What was the problem?
This wasn’t a bad book but it wasn’t really what I’ve come to expect from Georgette Heyer. I read nearly a third of the book and it was very heavy on historical detail, particularly descriptions of army life and battles, which I wasn’t in the right mood for.
Would I try it again?
Maybe, but there are plenty of other Georgette Heyer books I’d like to read first.

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

What’s it about?
This is a classic historical adventure novel about seventeen-year-old David Balfour, whose uncle has him kidnapped in an attempt to steal his inheritance.
What was the problem?
I wanted to read some of the children’s classics I’d missed out on when I was younger and started reading this one on my ereader. I loved the opening chapters but when I reached a long section set at sea I started to lose interest.
Would I try it again?
Probably not.

Love and Summer by William Trevor

What’s it about?
Set during one summer in the 1950s, this is a story about the small Irish town of Rathmoye and the people who live there.
What was the problem?
I think it was probably just the wrong time for me to read this book. I had recently finished reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin and this one seemed to have a very similar feel. I wasn’t in the mood for another quiet, gentle story so I set this book aside after a few chapters.
Would I try it again?
Yes.

The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

What’s it about?
The story of Henry VIII’s wife, Katherine Howard, as seen through the eyes of her lady-in-waiting, Cat Tilney.
What was the problem?
I couldn’t get into this book at all and abandoned it after a couple of chapters. The dialogue was too modern and the characters didn’t feel like real people to me. Maybe if I’d kept reading I would have started to enjoy it more, but my instincts told me this wasn’t the right book for me.
Would I try it again?
No.

Have you read any of these books? Did you have better luck with them than I did?