Harvest by Jim Crace

 Harvest cover

Harvest by Jim Crace was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. That year it was won by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, which I haven’t read.

The events in Harvest take place over seven days in which the unnamed hamlet where Walter Thirsk lives goes from being a comfortable if very basic home for 60 or so souls to a place of devastation.

Walter has lived there for 12 years, he’s the only incomer, all the other inhabitants have intermarried over many generations, they’re all blond and Walter sticks out with his dark hair. Since his wife’s death he has realised that he has never really been accepted as one of them. When three strangers set up a shack nearby they’re instantly blamed for a fire that has just burned down the dovecote. In his heart Walter knows that some of the villagers did it but he doesn’t speak out which he comes to regret.

Unknown to the inhabitants big changes are coming to the hamlet, as the death of the landowner Master Kent’s wife means that the whole place is now owned by her cousin and he has big ideas to make the place profitable. It’ll be the last harvest as the much more profitable crop – sheep – are going to be moved in soon, very few people will be needed to look after them so the people will be redundant and moved off the land which will all be enclosed and off limits to everyone. The land had given them everything they needed to live, if frugally. Walter overheard the plans, but worse was to come with the new owner’s henchmen claiming that some of the females must be witches.

Jim Crace’s writing is good, but he didn’t place the hamlet in a particular area of Britain or even a distinct time, so there’s no real sense of place. I know that he did that deliberately as the same new laws that allowed landowners to fence off land that had previously been used by country folks to graze their animals affected all rural places, but I really like to know where I am when I’m reading a book.

When I was in second year in High School the history curriculum (Scotland) included studying the Enclosure Acts so none of it was news to me. I’m not sure if it was on the curriculum in England though.

HITTY Her first hundred years by Rachel Field

 HITTY Her first hundred years cover

I was very surprised to receive a copy of HITTY Her first hundred years by Rachel Field as an unexpected gift from Wilhelmina an online friend from the D.E. Stevenson website. I must admit I had never even heard of the book but it was a very enjoyable comfort read, perfect for these pandemic times. The book was first published in 1929, is illustrated by Dorothy P. Lathrop and it won the John Newbery Medal.

Hitty is a wee wooden doll with peg joints, made out of a piece of mountain ash – or rowan as we call it in Scotland – a kind of wood which is magical as it keeps witches away, so she feels special, she’s only six and a half inches tall. It begins with Hitty sitting in an antique shop with a cat for company and she goes through her past life recounting the many adventures that she’s had along the way, and there are many. It seems that some of her little owners weren’t all that careful with her. She begins her family life with the Prebles of Maine where she’s given to seven year old Phoebe, it’s a very happy home but the sea-faring father needs a cook before he can take his ship to sea again and his wife has to step up and do the job, which means that the children go to sea too, including Hitty.

She’s shipwrecked, abducted by crows, stuffed down the back of a sofa, falls out of a car – you name it and it happened to Hitty – or just about. Almost every adventure ends up in a change of family for her where she experiences spoiled wealthy children and poor families, she goes up and down in society and also goes in and out of fashion. This is an entertaining memoir which also follows the changes in society over 100 years.

Having been ‘born’ in 1829 Hitty’s 200th anniversary is coming up fairly soon, I’m wondering if anyone is going to take up the baton and write about the years from 1930 to 2030. I do hope so!

Thanks for sending me this one Wilhelmina.

Anna, Where Are You? by Patricia Wentworth

 Anna, Where Are You?  cover

Anna, Where Are You? by Patricia Wentworth was published in 1953 and it’s a Miss Silver mystery.

Unusually (I think) Miss Silver’s entrance in this book is on the very first page where she’s perusing the births, deaths and marriages columns of her copy of The Times, but it’s the Agony Column which really attracts her interest. Someone called Thomasina is looking for Anna – Please Write. That short message leads Miss Silver into a dangerous investigation.

Thomasina is looking for her old schoolfriend Anna who has left a suitcase with Thomasina to look after. It’s ages since Anna has been in touch though and Thomasina is worried about her. Thomasina’s fiance Peter Brandon can’t understand why she is worried as Anna isn’t a very nice person and not much of a friend, but Thomasina feels sorry for her.

Miss Silver’s investigation takes her to Deepe House which is a bit of a wreck as the middle of it had been bombed during the war. Peveril Craddock, the new owner, has re-named it Harmony House, he’s an obnoxious character who is supposed to be writing a great work but his wife Emily and step-children are obviously frightened of him, although he has a bevy of strange female admirers who live in ‘the colony’ – nearby cottages.

Anna had been at Deepe House, looking after the rather out of control children but she had left no clue as to where she was going. Inspector Frank Abbott gets involved when during his investigation into a nearby bank robbery and murder he has to question the people at the house and the colony. Miss Silver’s past experience as a governess comes in handy as the Craddocks are very happy to have her as part of the household where she solves the mystery and sorts out the children too.

This one was a bit of a slow burner for me but it ended up being really good as I had no idea what had been going on!

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

 Thomas Mann cover

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann was first published in 1913 and translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter.

Gustave Aschenbach is a successful hard working writer, living in Munich. He had been allowed to add the word ‘von’ to his name, almost raising him to aristocracy. In his younger years he had done a lot of travelling but that had tailed off as he got older and he had hardly left Munich in recent years. On impulse he decides to travel to Venice, a place he had loved in the past.

This is a tale of obsession as when Aschenbach reaches his hotel in Venice he is entranced by the sight of a young blond boy, beautiful and elegant and obviously the only much pampered boy in his family which consists of three older sisters and their mother. Aschenbach can hardly take his eyes off the boy who is dressed beautifully in contrast with his very plainly dressed sisters. The mother is festooned with ‘well-nigh priceless pearls’. The family comes from Poland and Aschenbach eventually discovers that the boy’s name is Tadzio.

Aschenbach gets into the habit of settling himself on the beach where he can have a good view of the family, and his interest is eventually noticed by the mother who calls Tadzio away when he strays too close to where Ascenbach is sunning himself. When Aschenbach can’t see them he walks aroudn the city looking for them, and even follows them around when he finds them.

During all this time visitors are beginning to leave Venice and aren’t being replaced by others, but Aschenbach is too steeped in his obsession to notice. Eventually even he can’t ignore the frequent wafts of carbolic acid that he can smell in the air, but the hoteliers and businesses are in denial, they don’t want to lose the few customers who haven’t already left. Too late Aschenbach is told of the Asiatic Cholera which had begun in the delta of the Ganges and wafted its way through many countries before reaching Italy. Plus ca change – as they say!

This little novella is the first that I’ve read by Thomas Mann, but won’t be the last as he’s such a good writer but I must admit that I started reading this one in bed and decided that it wasn’t bedtime reading, so I started it again in the morning and read it in a couple of sittings. I still felt that it didn’t really get going until Aschenbach reached Venice, which didn’t take long.

I’m assuming that everyone has seen the 1971 film of the book starring Dirk Bogarde, which is why I’ve recounted the whole story, but it’s really just the bare bones of it and it didn’t matter that I already knew the ending, it’s in the title after all. The film is a bit different though.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt

 The Christmas Card Crime cover

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt was published in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year.

The book begins in London 1895 in the South Kensington museum where Prosper Cain, an ex-army officer is Special Keeper of Precious Metals. His son Julian is home from school due to illness and he notices a young boy who is intently drawing one of the exhibits. Julian follows the boy when he disappears into the bowels of the museum and catches up with him. Philip has run away from his poverty stricken home in the Potteries and he’s hoping that one day he will be able to make wonderful pottery himself.

Olive Wellwood, a famous children’s author is also in the museum, visiting Prosper Cain and she takes Philip home to her large house near Rye and so begins a tale which spans 25 years of British social and political history with many of the influential people of the times having bit parts. William Morris, H.G. Wells, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, the Pankhursts, the Arts and Crafts Movement, The Fabians. It’s all there, as are the wars.

Through it all runs the story of Olive Wellwood’s extended family and friends. Olive writes very successful fairy tales, supporting her family and husband with her earnings, but when each of her children are born she writes them their own story which she adds to over the years. It’s a charming idea for small children but has a detrimental effect on some. On the surface the Edwardian lives are idyllic but all is not well, the adults have been living double lives and the children/young adults have been used and abused in all sorts of ways, nothing is as it seems.

I loved this book which I’ll probably give five stars on Goodreads even although there are a few times when Byatt goes off on a tangent for just a few pages which probably should have been edited out. Otherwise I loved the writing, which was a good surprise for me as I’m sure that I abandoned one of her earlier books because I didn’t like her writing style, but I can’t say that for this one. I also learned quite a lot of historical facts about an era that I thought I was already well acquainted with.

Byatt really threw herself into this one and says that she had a lot of help from specialists on World War 1, women’s suffrage, Austrian theatre, the history of women’s colleges, public schools and she even had a go at sticking her hands in wavering clay, for the experience.

This isn’t a comfort read, in fact it’s quite uncomfortable at times but I found it to be a great read and surely it would have won the Man Booker Prize if Wolf Hall hadn’t been shortlisted in the same year. At one point I thought that the character of Olive Wellwood must have been modelled on the children’s author E. Nesbit, but then she was mentioned in the book. She was one of those poor women who were in The Fabian Society which at that time seems to have been mainly formed by men who wanted ‘free love’ at the expense of the women they took up with. On a personal note I was so glad that we had visited Rye in Sussex in 2019 as the town and the famous Mermaid Inn feature in this book, it’s good to be able to imagine it, although nowadays if you’re really keen you can go onto Google Street to see any locations in books.

What’s going on?

In my very small and rapidly shrinking world there isn’t a lot going on at the moment. In Scotland we have a lockdown again and we’re supposed to stay at home, unless we need to go out for food. At this time of the year that’s not too awful, especially as we have really cold weather at the moment and our walk for The Guardian every morning (as essential as food) is a treacherous one with any paths we use swathed in layers of ice. It’s safer to walk on the crunchy icy grass when possible. Otherwise we are seeing nobody and giving any oncoming fellow walkers a wide berth.

Normally by this time I’ve read a couple of books, but I’ve been reading The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt since before the new year and I still have thirty or so pages to go, that’ll be my bedtime reading tonight. This is the first book by A.S. Byatt that I’ve read and I must say that I love it, but it is over 600 pages long and the print is quite small. I have already flipped to the back of the book to see if there was a bibliography because I am so impressed by the amount of historical detail in it, but according to the author she was greatly helped by knowledgeable members of her family, friends and acquaintances and she read too many books to mention them all, but she does mention a few. This one was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009, the year it was won by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. How unfortunate for Byatt as surely in any other year The Children’s Book would have won it.

Anyway, more on that subject tomorrow. As it looks like we’ll be stuck at home possibly for months depending on what happens next to the stats, I think I’ll be catching up with my Goodreads challenge, apparently I’m one behind at the moment!
On a completely dfferent topic – I just have to tell you that today I spotted a red squirrel running around in the woodland this morning, that’s the second one we’ve seen within about ten days – and we hadn’t seen any for about three years before that. There are of course loads of grey squirrels which are nothng like as elegant and charming as the red ones. Of course, I didn’t manage to get a photo of it.

You can see some images of red squirrels here.

Christmas books

This Christmas I got far fewer books than usual due to not being able to travel around and visit bookshops where in normal years from the autumn onwards I would just ask Jack to put any book purchases away and wrap them up for Christmas for me.

More Christmas Books

Christmas Books

I was lucky enough to be given a copy of Completely Perfect by Felicity Cloake. She’s a cookery writer who features in The Guardian, I really like her as any recipes of hers that I’ve tried in the past have worked out well, and you can’t say that for all food writers. The blurb on the front says: ‘A gift for anyone who is learning to cook’. I’ve been cooking for over 45 years but I’m sure I can improve using these recipes which are all classics.

During a brief lifting of lockdown I visited a favourite rake-around upcyle shop near Perth, they’re always so much more interesting than ordinary shops as you just never know what might turn up. This time I bought three lovely wee Alison Uttley books to add to my own collection of children’s books. Squirrel Goes Skating, Moldy Warp the Mole and Little Grey Rabbit’s Party.

It’s lovely to think that they’ll be in use again at some point in the future. I hope my granddaughter will grow up liking books! They’re illustrated by Margaret Tempest and I think the endpapers are beautiful. These editions date from the early 1970s.

After reading my first book by the Scottish author Dorita Fairlie Bruce I decided I would have to resort to the internet to get some more. So I opted to begin the Dimsie series:

Dimsie Goes to School
Dimsie Moves Up
Dimsie Moves Up Again.

These books date from the 1930s. I’ve ony read one book by her before and that was from her Springdale series, set in Scotland, so I hope I enjoy these ones as much, although I believe the setting of the school is England. The very first page has endeared me already though:

The mail train from the north roared its way towards London down the long bleak incline of the Chap Fells, and Dimsie curled up in her corner seat, regarded the green rounded hills with a certain contempt; the Scottish mountains to which she belonged, were made of altogether sterner stuff, and already she was begining to feel a little bit lonely without them. Ben Lomond – the Cobbler and his Wife – they had all been as living friends to Dimsie through the ten short years of a life that had not known many human friends.

If you look at my header photo of Dumbarton, the town I grew up in, you can just make out Ben Lomond in the distance.

Did you get some lovely Christmas books this year?

Goodreads 2020 Challenge – and this and that

During this very strange and unsettling year I managed to read 116 books. The most that I’ve read since signing up for the Goodreads Challenge was 133 which I read in 2016 and again in 2018. I can’t say that I’ve had any problems with reading during the pandemic, but I have very much missed mooching around in second-hand bookshops. That’s probably my favourite pastime, that and mooching around in antique/junk/reclamation/rake around shops and markets.

It’s just not the same looking at books online, there’s no chance of stumbling across a book that you didn’t even realise you were looking for or even existed. In normal times towards the back end of a year I would tell Jack to put any books I had bought away and wrap them up for Christmas for me. It’s a failsafe way of getting something you really want and I always forget what they are anyway, so they’re always a nice surprise. I often find that real surprises aren’t so nice!

You can see my 2020 Goodreads books here. It was a fairly good reading year. I think my favourite was Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, but that might just be because I was just so glad to get my hands on it after such a long wait, it definitely didn’t disappoint though.

The Christmas Card Crime and other stories

 The Christmas Card Crime cover

The Christmas Card Crime and other stories is edited by Martin Edwards and is a British Library Crime Classic.

This compilation of eleven Christmas/winter themed vintage crime short stories is as you would expect a bit of a mixed bunch, but that means that there will surely be something to suit everyone. Each short story is preceded by a short biography of the author, which I found interesting.

For me it was the story from which the title of the book came which was most successful. The Christmas Card Crime was written by Donald Stuart. Some of the stories are sooo short, and I can’t help thinking that the author used up a good idea which could have been worked up into something a lot longer and for me more inetresting. I suppose that just means that I’m not a big fan of short stories, well not very short ones anyway.

The other authors featuring in this anthology are:

Baroness Orczy
Selwyn Jepson
Ronald Knox
Carter Dickson
Francis Durbridge
Cyril Hare
E.C.R. Lorac
John Bude
John Bingham
Julian Symons

The book cover is taken from a vintage travel poster.

Mont-Revard poster

Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times – 28th December

Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times was originally hosted by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness, then I took over for a while, but this will be my last such post as I’ve just about run out of bookshelves that I think people might be interested in seeing. This has been an enjoyable meme though and I’ve loved seeing books from other people’s collections.

Books

On the left hand side there are a couple of books by the World War 1 VAD nurse Vera Brittain – Account Rendered and Testament of Experience, I gave Testament of Youth to my history teacher daughter-in-law. They’re interesting books, but Vera Brittain was a bit of a dichotomy as she was all for women’s rights, as long as the women weren’t her own servants – according to her daughter Shirley Williams.

I love Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel writing, he began his adventures as an 18 year old, I believe after he was expelled from school. Those adventures and his knowledge of Greek were of great help during World War 2 when he joined the army and went undercover to what was then German occupied Greece. Not that he was very low profile as he ended up taking a German general prisoner!

The Little Prince by Antoine Saint Exupery is a lovely wee book. It’s beautifully illustrated by the author too.

The French dictionary is from my school days but it still comes in handy sometimes. At school I ‘did’ French, German and Latin and much more recently I’ve been trying to learn Dutch, but I don’t think I could ever get to grips well with any language unless I lived in the country for a while, well that’s my excuse anyway! Are you bookshelf travelling this week?

Staircase Wit