Category Archives: Serious

The Rector’s Daughter – F M Mayor

The Rector’s Daughter – F M Mayor

This has languished in my digital pile since July 2018 and then finally last week I got to it.

Here’s the blurb …

Dedmayne Rectory is quietly decaying, its striped chintz and darkened rooms are a bastion of outmoded Victorian values. Here Mary has spent thirty-five years, devoting herself to her sister, now dead, and to her father, Canon Jocelyn. Although she is pitied by her neighbours for this muted existence, Mary is content. But when she meets Robert Herbert, Mary’s ease is destroyed and years of suppressed emotion surface through her desire for him.

First published in 1924 this novel is an impressive exploration of Mary’s relationship with her father, of her need for Robert and the way in which, through each, she comes to a clearer understanding of love.

This is a beautifully written novel – not a lot happens, but it is about the characters and how they treat one another. It’s about trying to do the right thing and being steadfast, and about putting one foot in front of the other despite disappointments. It is quite sad, Mary’s life was one of sacrifice (quiet desperation – although Mary was happy to look after both her invalid sister and her father) with occasional moments of joy. Why is it some people get everything? And some nothing at all?

Persephone books also publish this novel – here’s their page on it.

A review.

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Prophet Song – Paul Lynch

Prophet Song – Paul Lynch

As you all know, this won the Booker prize in 2023. I am a bit hit and miss with the Booker, some years I love it (Possession) and other years not so much (The Sea). However, I decided I would try listening to this one.

Here’s the blurb …

A fearless portrait of a society on the brink as a mother faces a terrible choice, from an internationally award-winning author.

On a dark, wet evening in Dublin, scientist and mother-of-four Eilish Stack answers her front door to find the GNSB on her step. Two officers from Ireland’s newly formed secret police are here to interrogate her husband, a trade unionist.

Ireland is falling apart. The country is in the grip of a government turning towards tyranny and Eilish can only watch helplessly as the world she knew disappears. When first her husband and then her eldest son vanish, Eilish finds herself caught within the nightmare logic of a collapsing society.

How far will she go to save her family? And what – or who – is she willing to leave behind?

Exhilarating, terrifying and propulsive, Prophet Song is a work of breathtaking originality, offering a devastating vision of a country at war and a deeply human portrait of a mother’s fight to hold her family together.

I had heard that it was violent (hence my trepidation) and there is one terrible scene where you see the results of awful violence, but I wouldn’t describe this novel as violent. Menacing, tense and very sad. And a story for our times (given the rise of right-wing governments).

It is beautifully written. We see it from Eilish’s perspective and she is worried about school, and food, keeping her children safe, looking after her dad who is deteriorating with dementia, finding where her husband has been detained, meanwhile everything around her is falling apart. Her sister, in Canada, wants her to leave and sends resources, but she can’t leave while both her husband and son are missing. Her sister says something like ‘history is full of people who waited to long to leave’.

A review

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Dressed in Fiction – Clair Hughes

Dressed in Fiction – Clair Hughes

I am not sure where I first heard about this book, but I bought a second hand copy from Abe books (it’s probably a second because the first chapter is in backwards!).

Here’s the blurb …

When we look closely at dress in a novel we begin to enrich our sense of the novel’s historical and social context. More than this, wealth, class, beauty and moral rectitude can all be coded in fabric. In the modern novel, narratives are increasingly situated within the consciousness of characters, and it is the experience of dress that tells us about the context and the emotional, political and psychological values of the characters. Dressed in Fiction traces the deployment of dress in key fictional texts of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, from Daniel Defoe’s Roxana to George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Covering a range of topics, from the growth of the middle classes and the association of luxury with vice, to the reasons why wedding dresses rarely ever symbolize happiness, the book presents a unique study of the history of clothing through the most popular and influential literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This book (non-fiction) is the intersection of literature and fashion history. I found it fascinating and very readable. I haven’t read Daniel Defoe so that chapter didn’t appeal to me as much as the others, I particularly enjoyed the ones on Middlemarch and House of Mirth. I now want to go back and (re)read these novels.

If you enjoy Victorian literature and fashion, then you will enjoy this book.

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Still Life – A S Byatt

Still Life – A S Byatt

After listening to The Virgin in the Garden I was keen to continue this series and downloaded this one from Borrowbox.

Here’s the blurb …

From the author of The New York Times best seller Possession , comes a highly acclaimed novel which captures in brilliant detail the life of one extended English family-and illuminates the choices they must make between domesticity and ambition, life and art.

Stephanie Potter gives up a promising academic career to marry Daniel Orton, while her sister, Frederica, enters Cambridge, and her brother, Marcus, begins recovering from a nervous breakdown

This one is a bit sadder than the first – Byatt does write grief well, but it still has all the lovely art and literature references. And I love how we get snippets from several characters’s view points – Alexander, Stephanie, Marcus and, of course, Frederica.

I am looking forward to the next one Babel Tower, which is also on Borrowbox.

A review

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1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro

1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare – James Shapiro

I first heard about this book from the Baillie-Gifford Prize podcast (The Read Smart podcast). I found a copy at the library.

Here’s the blurb …

599 was an epochal year for Shakespeare and England

Shakespeare wrote four of his most famous plays: Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and, most remarkably, Hamlet; Elizabethans sent off an army to crush an Irish rebellion, weathered an Armada threat from Spain, gambled on a fledgling East India Company, and waited to see who would succeed their aging and childless queen.

James Shapiro illuminates both Shakespeare’s staggering achievement and what Elizabethans experienced in the course of 1599, bringing together the news and the intrigue of the times with a wonderful evocation of how Shakespeare worked as an actor, businessman, and playwright. The result is an exceptionally immediate and gripping account of an inspiring moment in history.

This was fascinating. I particularly enjoyed the sections where Shapiro put the plays into historical context. It was very easy to read, Shapiro wears his wealth of knowledge lightly.

A review

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Filed under 4, Biography, History, Recommended, Serious

The Netanyahus – Joshua Cohen

The Netanyahus – Joshua Cohen

A dear friend gave me this book for chirstmas. I didn’t know anything about it all, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I loved it.

Corbin College, not-quite-upstate New York, winter 1959-1960: Ruben Blum, a Jewish historian – but not an historian of the Jews – is co-opted onto a hiring committee to review the application of an exiled Israeli scholar specializing in the Spanish Inquisition. When Benzion Netanyahu shows up for an interview, family unexpectedly in tow, Blum plays the reluctant host, to guests who proceed to lay waste to his American complacencies. Mixing fiction with non-fiction, the campus novel with the lecture, THE NETANYAHUS is a wildly inventive, genre-bending comedy of blending, identity, and politics – ‘An Account of A Minor and Ultimately Even Negligible Incident in the History of a Very Famous Family’ that finds Joshua Cohen at the height of his powers.

It’s first person narration (which I always like) and the language is rich, I had to stop and look words up all the time. Also, I was intrigued by jewish history; was the Spanish Inquisition lead by the monarchy and not the church to reduce the power of the nobles? I even looked on Wikipedia to find out how Israel was formed after World War Two.

A review

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The Plague – Albert Camus

The Plague – Albert Camus

This is either a very weird or very appropriate choice of novel in the middle of a global pandemic. After two years things are just starting to kick of here (Western Australia – we leveraged our geographic isolation and have been (mostly) covid free).

Here’s the blurb …

A gripping tale of human unrelieved horror, of survival and resilience, and of the ways in which humankind confronts death, The Plague is at once a masterfully crafted novel, eloquently understated and epic in scope, and a parable of ageless moral resonance, profoundly relevant to our times. In Oran, a coastal town in North Africa, the plague begins as a series of portents, unheeded by the people. It gradually becomes an omnipresent reality, obliterating all traces of the past and driving its victims to almost unearthly extremes of suffering, madness, and compassion.

I enjoyed it. The reaction now is very similar to the reaction 80 years ago (was it good research? or just insight?)

A review and another one.

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The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry

The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry – David Musgrove and Michael Lewis

I am very keen to visit the Bayeux Tapestry. I planned to go in 2020, but we all know how that turned out. So i keep buying books about it. I first heard of this one on the History Extra podcast (worth listening to if you are at all interested in the tapestry – or even the Norman conquest).

Here’s the blurb …

Most people know that the Bayeux Tapestry depicts the moment when the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, Harold Godwinson, was defeated at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by his Norman adversary William the Conqueror. However, there is much more to this historic treasure than merely illustrating the outcome of this famous battle. Full of intrigue and violence, the tapestry depicts everything from eleventh-century political and social life—including the political machinations on both sides of the English Channel in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest—to the clash of swords and stamp of hooves on the battle field.

Drawing on the latest historical and scientific research, authors David Musgrove and Michael Lewis have written the definitive book on the Bayeux Tapestry, taking readers through its narrative, detailing the life of the tapestry in the centuries that followed its creation, explaining how it got its name, and even offering a new possibility that neither Harold nor William were the true intended king of England. Featuring stunning, full- color photographs throughout, The Story of the Bayeux Tapestry explores the complete tale behind this medieval treasure that continues to amaze nearly one thousand years after its creation.

Firstly, this is a beautiful object with fabulous colour pictures of the tapestry – scene by scene and then altogether at the end (over several pages).

The opening two chapters are about the tapestry as a physical object – how did it survive, who commissioned it – and some information on the Normal Conquest.

The following 10 chapters are a detailed description (including images) of the scenes of the tapestry. I particularly enjoyed these chapters – the action in the main section is described as well as anything happening in the two borders. The authors have a lovely way of describing the action – they really bring the characters (actors?) to life.

The final chapter is about the tapestry’s legacy – will it ever get back to England?

I really enjoyed reading this (and it was easy to read) and I think anyone interested in textiles, early medieval history and even military history will find this a fascinating read.

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The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel

The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel

The long-awaited third in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy.

‘If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?’

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

This book will be forever known as my quarantine book – my reading it has co-incided with our lockdown (five weeks now).

This is a large book (physically – I should have bought a kindle version) and it took me a long time to read, but I enjoyed it. I even re-watched the Wolf Hall T.V adaptation. And I have bought Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell.

4/5 (too long for 5/5)

Another review.

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The Givenness Of Things – Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson

I have enjoyed all of Ms Robinson’s novels and enjoyed listening to her on the BBC World Book Club. I was keen to read her essays.

Here is the description from Goodreads …

A profound essay collection from the beloved author of GileadHouskeeping and Lila, now including Marilynne Robinson’s conversation with President Barack Obama.

Robinson has plumbed the depths of the human spirit in her trilogy of novels – Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, Orange-Prize winning Home and National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Lila – and in her moving essay collection When I Was a Child I Read Books.

Now, in The Givenness of Things, she brings a profound sense of awe and an incisive mind to the essential questions of contemporary life and faith. Through fourteen essays of remarkable depth and insight, Robinson explores the dilemmas of our modern predicament. How has our so-called Christian nation strayed from so many of the teachings of Christ? How could the great minds of the past, Calvin and Locke-and Shakespeare-guide our lives? And what might the world look like if we could see the sacredness in each other?

Exquisite and bold, these essays are a necessary call for us to find wisdom and guidance in our cultural treasures, to seek humanity and compassion in each other. The Givenness of Thingsis a reminder of what a marvel our existence is in its grandeur – and its humility.

I will say from the outset that I am not a christian and I think most of the world’s ills are caused by white, christian men, but if anyone could convert me it would be Ms Robinson. And if all christians were christian like her the world would be a better place.

It took me a long time to read this book and I am not sure reading it cover to cover is the best way of reading it. Each essay required focus and concentration and it might be better to dip into it from time to time reading one essay at a time.

It is academic, thoughtful and thought-provoking.

More reviews …

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/oct/16/givenness-of-things-marylinne-robinson-review

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