The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd – 20 Books of Summer

The House of Doctor Dee cover

The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd was first published in 1993 and it has probably been in our house since around that date – on Jack’s shelves – but the title just jumped out at me a couple of weeks ago, probably because I had seen the name in the Maragret Irwin book I had been reading then. I decided to add it to my 20 Books of Summer list. I think this is number 6 for me that I’ve read from my list so far and it’s the first book that I’ve read by this author, but won’t be the last.

Matthew Palmer has inherited a house from his father, it’s in London’s Clerkenwell and nobody had known that it had been owned by the father. Matthew is intrigued as you would expect and even more so when he visits the house and realises that it’s actually very old. As Matthew is a historical researcher it’s right up his street. But the house has a strange atmosphere, especially in the cellar which must at one time have been the ground floor but has sunk over the last five or so centuries. Strangely Matthew’s friend Daniel seems to be familiar with the house already.

Looking through some of his father’s papers Matthew realises that his father was engaged in his own historical research, based on the writings of Doctor Dee who was a 16th century alchemist, mathematician, astronomer and astrologer, and some say was a sorcerer. He certainly managed to escape death when he was arrested by Mary Tudor’s henchmen and taken to the tower, accused of trying to murder the queen using sorcery.

The narrative flits between Matthew’s thoughts and problems and Doctor Dee’s thoughts, research and home life and there’s a sense of spooky creepiness permeating the contemporary Clerkenwell house. It’s a good and interesting read.

The blurb on the back from the Sunday Telegraph says:

‘He is such a master of mood, tension, angst, foreboding, frisson, but also of tenderness and exaltation, that one is drawn into his tale as by a magus.’

The cover is of a portrait of Doctor Dee which is apparently in the Ashmolean Museum, but the artist is unknown. Dee certainly looks the part though.

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan – 20 Books of Summer

My Friend Flora cover

My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan was published in 1962, it’s part of a long series of ‘My Friend’ books. These are generally a light-hearted keek into another way of life, the setting is the Highlands of Scotland, a remote crofting community where all families have a nickname. Often it’s just the name of the farm where they live. Janet Sandison’s family are all named Reachfar as a surname. Reachfar being the name of where they live.

It begins in 1915 when Janet goes to the small local primary school and meets Flora Smith for the first time. Flora is a few years older than Janet and her bye-name as they call it is Bedamned because her father is always using that word, but it seems that the bye-name is more like a curse on the family as disaster after disaster befalls them. For that reason this book is different from the others in the series that I’ve read, admittedly I haven’t got my hands on many of them yet.

Janet is sorry for Flora, it seems like a life of selfless drudgery with no thanks from anyone, particularly her harsh and morose father, but Flora is happy with her lot and her situation shows that what seems appalling to one person is a source of love and even pride to another.

Towards the end of the book the action moves to the USA briefly, via a trip on a ship and aeroplane, something that would have seemed very exotic to most readers of the book.

This was an enjoyable read despite Flora being the sort of character that you wanted to give a good shake and also some uncomfortable scenes involving a dog being tormented. There is comeuppance which is always a good thing.

20 books of summer

The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster – 20 Books of Summer

 The Flight of the Heron cover

The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster was first published in 1925. It’s the first book in a Jacobite trilogy, the others being The Gleam in the North and The Dark Mile. Broster was an English woman who was inspired to write this trilogy after a five week long visit to friends in Scotland, she says that she consulted 80 reference books before embarking on writing the series. I can believe it. I’ll definitely be reading the other two. Broster served as a Red Cross nurse in a Franco-American hospital during World War 1.

The setting is 1745, the book begins just before the Jacobite rebellion. Ewen Cameron is a young Highland chieftain who has spent years in France as a boy being educated and avoiding the English as his father had been a Jacobite supporter. There’s a large Scottish community and that’s where he met Alison Grant whom he’s now engaged to.

With the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the gathering of the clans at Glenfinnan Alison is obviously worried about the outcome, but with Lochiel supporting the Prince despite the fact that he hasn’t brought the promised French help with him, Clan Cameron led by Ewen will be in the thick of any battles.

Ewen’s foster-father Angus has the ‘second sight’ although he’s blind and he warns Ewen that a heron plays some sort of part in his future, but he can’t say whether it is for good or bad.

Captain Keith Windham of the Royal Scots is one of the many British Army soldiers inhabiting the Highlands at the time. He’s a career soldier and isn’t happy about this posting, he wants to be in Antwerp instead of in the old and wet Highlands which as far as he is concerned is infested with wild rebels. His meeting with Ewen is a surprise to him as what looks like a wild man to him turns out to be an educated and honourable gentleman. Captain Windham has always been a bit of a loner, having decided that that was the best way of advancing his career but he finds that he is drawn to Ewen and throughout their subsequent meetings they avoid the chance to do each other damage as they should given that they are on opposite sides.

This is a great read and the writing gives a really authentic feel of the Scottish Highlands and also the Edinburgh of the time. I haven’t read the Diana Gabaldon books, I’ve been warned that they’re probably too racy for my liking, but I have watched Outlander – I just roll my eyes at the many sex scenes, but I suspect that she read this book before setting out on her long series of books set around the same time – on and off. There are a lot of similarities between the characters, and even the shocking possibility of a clan chief (gentleman) being whipped appears in this book, but obviously back in 1925 there could only be some hints about male sexuality.

I’m always interested in who a book is dedicated to, this one is dedicated to Violet Jacob, in homage. She was a Scottish writer who had a very grand upbringing as her father owned the House of Dun which you can see here if you’re interested. I’m presuming that it was at this house with Violet Jacob that Broster stayed for five weeks and was inspired by the surroundings to write these books.

This is the fifth book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart – 20 Books of Summer

 The Runaway cover

The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart was first published in 1872 and then again in 1936 but my copy is a Persephone which was published in 2002.

Clarice is a 15 year old girl who is living with her father in quite a grand country house, but her mother is dead. She has a governess but lacks a friend of her own age. She’s a bit of a romantic, wishing she could have lived in the more exciting times of the past, in the times of the Charlses maybe.

Almost as soon as she says it a girl pops out of the hedge in front of her. Olga has run away from her school where she was badly treated according to her. There’s no doubt about it – Olga is a handful and I suspect her schoolteachers sighed with relief when she left it.

Clarice is enthralled by her new friend who is half Danish and half Scottish with a father in a Highland regiment (all very apt for Victorian times) and Clarice agrees to hide her in the house and feed her. Unfortunately Olga just can’t stop being naughty though and appears as a ghost in front of the governess and maid and Clarice realises that Olga is too much for her to cope with, she’ll have to track down Olga’s granny somehow as her parents are abroad – with the regiment.

I can see why this was chosen by Persephone, as it features a very unusual portrayal of a Victorian teenage girl, but I must admit that if this one had been the first Persephone book that I had read I would have thought more than twice about buying another one. It was mildly entertaining but wasn’t great. However the book is beautifully illustrated with lots of wood block prints by Gwen Raverat nee Darwin who was Charles Darwin’s granddaughter. You can see some of her work here.

I particularly liked the image below, but it’s nothing to do with this book.

Raverat

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean – 20 Books of Summer

Peter Pan in Scarlet cover

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean is the official sequel to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan which was commissioned by Great Ormond Street Hospital. Barrie gave all the royalties for Peter Pan to the famous children’s hospital. There was a competition to see who would get the contract to write the sequel and McCaughrean won it, I feel that this might have something to do with the several one star so-called reviews of the book on Goodreads have possibly been posted by some who had hoped to win the chance to write the sequel. I cannot think of any other reason for them, and the posts just show up the reviewers as being ignorant. I doubt if they have ever read the actual original Peter Pan book and possibly have been no closer to it than the Disney animation and so have no notion of how well McCaughrean captured Barrie’s writing style.

As a bit of a J.M.Barrie fan I feel sure that he would have been absolutely thrilled with this sequel, the author has a fabulous imagination so it’s a very witty and entertaining read and beautifully written. The detractors obviously have no idea of the history behind Peter Pan, how Barrie based the Darling children on the Llewelyn Davies boys that he had befriended along with their parents. Michael was killed in the First World War and so he is missing from the cast in this book, and even that was well dealt with, but that horrified the one star ‘reviewers’.

All over parts of London ‘old boys’ who had been in Neverland are having vivid dreams about the place. They are adults now and have responsible careers and frequent a London club, one is even a judge. But Neverland is calling them and Mrs Wendy encourages them, so the old boys agree that on Saturday, 5th of June they’ll go to Neverland, it’s pencilled into their diaries, they just have to find some fairy dust so they can fly again. The Old Boys set off for Kensington Gardens with butterfly nets, intent on catching some fairies.

Of course they do get back to Neverland and Peter Pan, and so begins an adventure to rival Barrie’s. I don’t want to say too much about the story but it involves pirates, a strange ravelling wool man, thousands of fairies who have taken sides in a pointless war – are you red or are you blue?

This book is smart and witty and it was lovely to re-visit Neverland again and the old characters.

I hate to think that it might be dodged by future readers because of some ignorant reviews online. One reviewer was so incensed because of the way the First Nation people are referred to in the book. Such words as papoose, squaw and Red-Indian are used in this book. SO WHAT! When I read that nonsense I was fizzing mad. If people are so upset by the use of words that have now been deemed to be outdated then I would be more impressed if they actually did something to help the plight of the First Nation people who are in dire straits today, and in need of being treated like human beings instead of people being ‘upset’ by the use of anachronistic words in 2020 when a book is set in the 1920s-30s. Of course the use of the words is totally in keeping with the times that this book was set in. There are so many people trawling the net looking for reasons to pull someone apart and just showing themselves up as idiots.

I was lucky enough to be able to buy a signed edition of Peter Pan in Scarlet. This was the third book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

One by one, the individual flecks of colour separated and floated down, like rose petals at the end of summer. They brushed the upturned faces; settled on their shoulders. More and more fell: a light snow of flaking colour. Like snow it mesmerized them – a dizzying downward whirl of prettiness. Instead of spray from the waterfall they could feel only the soft touch of a thousand thousand fragments of loveliness. It piled up in their hair; it filled their ears and pockets; it tugged on their clothing. Tugged?

‘Fairies!’ cried Tootles delightedly. ‘Thousands of fairies!’

Sorry this was a bit of a rant. But….

This was book 3 from my 20 Books of Summer list

The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively – 20 Books of Summer

The House in Norham Gardens cover

This is my second book from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively was first published in 1974. The setting is Oxford, a large rambling house at number 40 Norham Gardens, where 14 year old Clare Mayfield lives with her two elderly aunts. The 19 rooms in the house are stuffed with artefacts, nothing has ever been thrown away and the attic even has trunks full of her great grandparents’ clothes. Clare’s parents are dead and she has more or less become the carer for her aunts who are becoming quite frail. In the past the aunts had taken a lead in Oxford academic society and they have high hopes for Clare’s future which seem well-founded as Clare is a good scholar. However when Clare finds a strangely painted tribal shield in the attic it somehow preys on her mind. It must have belonged to her great-grandfather who had been a famous anthropologist. A combination of the shield and the money worries of running the household on a shoestring culminate in her schoolwork going to pot.

The aunts had previously agreed to having a lodger to help pay the bills and Maureen adds quite a bit of humour to the book. But more money is required and a young student of anthropology from Uganda moves in to the house too. John Sempebwa becomes a good friend as Clare shows him around Oxford and they visit museums, one of which exhibits tribal art.

This is a really good read and considering it was written 46 years ago it was way ahead of the times as it deals with British colonialism and the plundering of often sacred objects from other countries and cultures, something that academics are now arguing about and often unwilling to give up.

This book is set in winter and if I had realised that I would probably have saved it to read in winter, near Christmas maybe. It seems that Oxford suffers freezing cold and snowy winters. Poor Clare was often battling against snow and ice while on her bike. It helped cool me down during our recent mini heatwave.

North from Rome by Helen MacInnes – 20 Books of Summer

North From Rome cover

North from Rome by the Scottish author Helen MacInnes is the first book that I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list. It was first published in 1958.

Bill Lammiter is a young and successful American playwright who has recently been dumped by his fiancee. She works at the American embassy in Rome and Bill is feeling bruised as Eleanor has quickly replaced him with an Italian man with a title. The story begins with Bill looking out from his balcony, admiring Rome in the dark and imagining the Roman soldiers who must have walked there in the past. His attention is taken by a young woman’s scream, she is being manhandled and is almost abducted and bundled into a car. When the man realises he has been spotted the woman manages to get away and so begins Bill’s unwanted adventure.

He had been hoping to be able to speak to Eleanor outside the embassy at some point, but when he does see her she is sitting at a table near his in a restaurant, alongside her Italian prince and his mother, then Rosana, the young woman that Bill had been able to help the previous evening joins them.

It’s all very strange, and becomes stranger. It seems that Eleanor’s new man is not what he appears to be. This is a really enjoyable thriller and I especially liked the Italian settings as the action moved from Rome to Perugia, MacInnes paints the landscape and gives a real flavour of Italy, no actual travelling required.

20 Books of Summer – 2020

20 books of summer

I’ve decided to join in with 20 Books of Summer this time around. It’s hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. This should be very easy for me to complete as I’ll definitely be reading at least that many books between June the 1st and September the 1st.

Click on the picture to enlarge it.

Pile of Books

Rome by Helen MacInnes
2. The Road Home by Rose Tremain
3. My Friend Flora by Jane Duncan
4. Winter Holiday by Arthur Ransome
5. The Citadel by A.J. Cronin
6. North froml_id=-1&preview=true”>The House of Doctor Dee by Peter Ackroyd
7. The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart
8. Madame Solario by Gladys Huntingdon
9. Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz
10. Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean
11. An Old-Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott
12. The Berry Scene by Dornford Yates
13. The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster
14. Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada
15. The Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse
16. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar
17. Call for the Dead by John le Carre
18. A Murder of Quality by John le Carre
19. The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively
20. Snow by Orhan Pamuk

I think this is a fairly good mixture of espionage, historial fiction, children’s classics, Scottish authors, books in translation – and various others. Having this list should mean that I don’t have too hard a time deciding which book to read next, with just these 20 to choose from. I hope to dip into some non-fiction too but that will just depend on my mood at the time.

Have you read any of these ones?

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart

This Rough Magic cover

This Rough Magic by Mary Stewart was first published in 1964 and the setting is the Greek island of Corfu, where Lucy Waring, a young aspiring actress is invited to stay with her sister for the summer. Her acting career has come to a bit of a halt so it’s an ideal opportunity for her, especially when she discovers that her sister’s neighbour is a famous thespian Sir Julian Gale. His son Max is staying with him, in fact it seems that Sir Julian isn’t in the best of health.

It’s a wee bit of an English enclave on that part of the island, there’s also a photographer who is working on a book of photos of the island and its animals and a dolphin features fairly prominently. But there’s plenty of local colour and of course romance.

Corfu is apparently supposed to be the setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest from which Stewart took the title for this and which is one that I’ve been intending to read for absolutely yonks now, and I really wish I had got around to it as there are so many quotes from it in the book. Mary Stewart was really well-read.

I enjoyed this one, there’s plenty of suspense although I don’t think it was quite as good as Nine Coaches Waiting.

I read this one for the Read Scotland 2017 Challenge and 20 Books of Summer.

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning

The Doves of Venus cover

The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning was first published in 1955 and it really couldn’t be any other era. I suppose that to young people reading this book will seem like ancient history as everything is just so different nowadays. I don’t think the type of young women featured in the book exist now, I was born just at the back end of the 1950s – to older parents so a lot of the attitudes seemed very familiar to me.

The setting is London where eighteen year old Ellie has moved from Eastsea where she lived with her widowed mother and older sister. Ellie has hopes of becoming an artist and her relationship with a much older man Quintin leads to her getting a job in a shop painting old furniture. It’s a hand to mouth existence with every penny being counted.

Ellie has fallen hard for Quintin who is married but separated from his wife – off and on, but as far as he is concerned females are just to be used, picked up and put down at his convenience. But the older female characters are often manipulative and avaricious, this isn’t a book that portrays all women as being good while the men are all bad.

London has changed so much since the 1950s and there is now no way that a teenager working in a shop could rent a room in Kensington or Chelsea, and I’m happy to say that in the 21st century mothers have more ambition for their daughters than getting them safely married and off their hands before they are out of their teenage years.

I really enjoyed this one although it doesn’t come up to the heights of Olivia Manning’s Levant trilogy or her Balkan trilogy.

The blurb on the back says: ‘Manning writes always with a poet’s care for words and it is her usual distinction of style and construction that lifts the novel … far, far above the average run’ STEVIE SMITH, OBSERVER

This one was one of my 20 Books of Summer.