Making Notes

Do you write in your books? I like to underline phrases that jump out an me – quotes I want to remember. I also love to find other people’s notes and underlinings in second hand books. What I especially love though are the inscriptions at the front of the books. Books showing my own history are wonderful – I was too young to remember my first visit to Tintagel but I have an excellent set of books to remind me of the trip. Or there is the book of Wordsworth’s poems which my Grandmother won in a potato race in 1924. We never got such good prizes at my sports days!

The inscriptions in second hand books are just as lovely. Presumably Mrs John High had a fondness for Walter Scott – two different friends gave her matching copies of his books in memory of holidays they shared. The questions about these former owners of my books can be endless. Did she collect Walter Scott or just the binding to make her shelf look beautiful? Did all these people go on a trip together or were the books reminders of two separate holidays? What about Walter H Whitehead? Was he a soldier when he bought this copy of Galsworthy’s The Dark Flower in Germany? The books give a fascinating glimpse into past lives.

Even the history of the books themselves can be interesting. When I bought this copy of Byron from a book sale at university I clearly had to write my details in the front – you can trace at least part of its history from the endpapers.

That’s why I am definitely in favour of writing in books. It gives them a life of their own which is fascinating to read in later years.

Winter Holidays

Every December I read Arthur Ransome’s Winter Holiday. I love the Swallows and Amazons series and this one is so perfect for reading at Christmas. Even if all the food does make me hungry. Last year I thought I would read a different book in the series but when it came to it I had to choose Winter Holiday. I couldn’t resist!

Earlier this year I started reading the series again in order and got as far as book five (I skipped Winter Holiday though as I read it so much!) so when December arrived and I started yearning for my cosy reading I was determined to pick up where I left off with Pigeon Post.

I couldn’t do it. Apparently I need to read about the Fram, the igloo and all that snow. It just wouldn’t be Christmas without it!

Lockdown Take Two

As we head into a second lockdown I find that I am more anxious than I was last time. Primarily I think that is down to the combination of the waiting and the uncertainty. Last time lockdown just started – although we knew something would happen – whereas now we have had a few days warning. As I have spent those constantly speculating about how it will affect me personally (I know it doesn’t help but I can’t stop!) I have been very on edge all week.

So much so that my reading – especially in my breaks at work – has suffered. I just can’t concentrate on my book when I’m in the staff room! I am doing much better at home – but there I am sticking to cosy, comforting reads. That definitely seems to be the way forward for me.

Therefore, my plan over lockdown is just to read whatever I feel like at the time. If a book isn’t working I’ll put it down and try something else. Children’s books or cosy crime are probably going to be the best – I am seeing a lot of Betsy-Tacy, LM Montgomery and Margery Allingham in my future. Of course, my cat will also be there to keep me company!

On a side note, when I couldn’t read this week the thing that worked best for me was decorating envelopes for my penpals. It is something I always enjoy doing but I have never been quite so obsessed as I have been this week!

Pony Story Time

As with many small girls, I was completely pony mad. In fact, I never grew out of that pony phase. As a child, I was desperate for a pony of my own – I was one of those annoying children who frequently presented my parents with detailed charts showing all the things I could give up to fund said pony.

In lieu of the pony, I read every single pony book I could get my hands on. I read the ones from the library many times and I was constantly searching for new titles. There is something about the pony book which shows every pony mad girl to herself – I particularly identified with red-headed Jinny and for years my dream horse was a beautiful chestnut mare just like Shantih.

Although I now have my own pony (who, incidentally, I got largely because of my time volunteering at the Moorland Mousie Trust and one of the most exciting things I got to do there was helping with the publishing of a new edition of Moorland Mousie – if you like Black Beauty you should definitely read it!) this is another thing I haven’t grown out of and there are so many pony books out there that I can still find brand new (to me) titles to enjoy.

My favourites are mainly those set in Britain in the forties and fifties (although I do love others – I’ve already mentioned Patricia Leitch’s Jinny series) – Ruby Ferguson, the Pullein-Thompson sisters and Gillian Baxter are some of my favourites. As most of my childhood reading of them was from the library I am still trying to fill the many, many gaps.

Unfortunately, most of these books are out of print and many of them are rare (or at least very expensive) even second hand. I have a suspicion that this is partly because they are children’s books which tend to get more damaged than books for adults. I also know from experience that some second hand book dealers can dismiss children’s books as not worth selling which is terrribly sad.

My current obsession is the Romney Marsh and Punchbowl Farm series by Monica Edwards. I read a couple of them as a teenager but couldn’t get hold of any more. I recently discovered that Girls Gone By Publishers have been reprinting them and I have slowly been building up my collection. I have been having a wonderful time reading them and the ponies seem to enjoy it too – Galahad wasn’t too sure at first but Cookster was very enthusiastic!

Reading Spots

I have a need to read. After my studying post last week I got obsessed with doing the exercises in my calculus textbook and spent a lot of time working on those. I loved doing them but I could feel myself gradually getting more anxious as the week went on because I had lost so much reading time. Reading really does keep me on an even keel.

I take a book with me everywhere. I have even been known to take a teeny-tiny little book to a wedding – not that I actually read it! It does mean that I generally also have to carry a big bag with me all the time though. I do have some lovely, cute little bags but they just won’t accommodate a book. On the rare occasions that I use them I tend to carry a book separately. It might be a bit inconvenient but I console myself with the hope that maybe it makes me look a little intellectual.

It can also get me into trouble. As a child I got told off for reading when I should have been doing chores. If I’m honest I still do this now – I just don’t tend to get told off for it any more! I have never yet read in a queue for the till in a shop (although I have been tempted) but I do all the time when waiting for the train or even just in the street waiting to meet someone. I still maintain that it should be socially acceptable to read at a concert. I can enjoy the music just as much when I am reading!

All of this does mean that I can end up reading in some very odd places. I distinctly remember practising for my Duke of Edinburgh expedition by loading a backpack with the heaviest books I could find and taking myself for a walk. It wasn’t long before I had pulled out one of the books and started reading it as I walked. Then there is this lovely perch in the apple tree. Who could resist at apple picking time?!

Comforting Cosy Crime

I’ve realised that I have been talking a lot about cosy crime books recently – it seems that in times of stress I really do find them comforting.  I generally revert to old favourites – Margery Allingham, Catherine Aird, Dorothy L Sayers…  At the moment I am mostly (but not exclusively) reading familiar authors but have been seeking out new to me titles.  They have the double advantage of seeming comfortingly well known whilst still being exciting new stories.

I am not alone either.  I remember early on in lockdown reading a piece by Robin Stevens about how the reading of crime fiction always increases in times of crisis.  Apparently it is because it is (perhaps subconsciously) reassuring to read a book which has very human problems we know will be neatly solved by the end.  I think we can all see the appeal of that!

For me, there are some stricter rules.  I do not like books where it turns out the narrator – or someone whose thoughts we can follow – is the murderer.  That breaks one of the rules of golden age detective fiction, although it is one Agatha Christie was happy to break – she is well know for breaking many of them!  I do hate getting emotionally attached to the villain.

I also like to have a fair chance of solving the murder myself. All the detective’s clues should be available to me otherwise it just isn’t fair. I love Ngaio Marsh but Alleyn has a terrible habit of saying something along the lines of, ‘I’ll tell you on the way.’ to Inspector Fox and we never get to see that scene. It’s a bit infuriating sometimes.

I do also have an issue with books where it turns out the murder was in fact a suicide. This is a problem which is very specific to me but I just don’t enjoy those stories nearly as much.

I have however been having a lovely time indulging my taste for cosy mysteries.  They are a balm I can highly recommend.

Readings from Northanger

Recently I have been re-reading Northanger Abbey with a lovely group of Jane Austen enthusiasts – most of whom are far more knowledgeable than I am.  I have so enjoyed our discussions and I have learnt a lot from them.

The first time I read Northanger I didn’t get it at all.   I had heard that it was very funny and I couldn’t understand why.  Then I learnt about gothic novels and read it again.  It turns out that it is indeed hilarious and I have loved it ever since.

The plot has a great deal to do with that (of course) but I also love how heavily books feature in the story.  As a bookish teenager I very much identified with Catherine – I too have spent much time living more in my fictional worlds than in the real one.

I have also very much appreciated the books I have discovered within its pages.  Like many people, I was pushed to read The Mysteries of Udolpho by Catherine Morland and, although the sentences are long and have far too many commas, I enjoyed it.  An even better discovery was Fanny Burney who I read partly because she is mentioned in Northanger and partly because I knew Jane Austen herself enjoyed reading her.  For me she was far superior to Mrs Radcliffe.

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From there I went on to discover several other 18th century authors including Maria Edgeworth who I loved.  I have not yet embarked on any of Samuel Richardson’s novels but I have no doubt that I will at some point.

For now though I have returned to the gothic and am about to start Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  This one isn’t mentioned in Northanger Abbey but I’m sure that Catherine and Isabella would have adored it.

Summer Mysteries

I am taking a few days annual leave this week. I have only been back at work for five weeks but it has been exhausting and I was more than ready for the break.

Of course, there are still things I need to get done this week but I was hopeful that I could spend a good chunk of the time reading. So far I have done pretty well and have read two of the Albert Campion series by Margaret Allingham – Traitor’s Purse and Coroner’s Pidgen. I have read both before so knew I would enjoy them and I have been revelling in them.

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I would have moved onto the next one but it is new to me and I need to wait until I actually have a copy. Instead, I have been drawn to another cosy mystery – The Plot is Murder by V M Burns. I don’t know a huge amount about this one but it was recommended to me and it is set in a mystery bookshop. How can I not like it?

Reading in Lockdown

I know that many people were struggling to read at the beginning of the lockdown but that wasn’t a problem I had.  All I wanted to do was devour books all day long.  However, as the weeks have gone on I’ve found that my reading rate has slowed down considerably.  I couldn’t really understand it as I was fairly sure that I was spending the same amount of time reading.  Having said that, I have also been keeping myself very busy with other things such as chores outside, painting and crochet – things I never normally make the time to do.

My reading had definitely slowed down though and in the end I decided it must be because of my reading choices – I was steadily reading my way through the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome.  I absolutely love these books but I do have to admit that they are very gentle stories and not action packed – they are not the kind of fast-paced book which forces you to keep reading so you know what happens next.  They very much allow you to take your time and luxuriate in them.

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It has been wonderful to re-read my way through the series in order (apart from Winter Holiday which I read every Christmas and didn’t want to read again so soon) but I am beginning to feel the need to read something a bit more gripping.  Not that I will stop reading Swallows and Amazons – I will just intersperse them a bit with something else.  My first choice was Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping – I bought his latest book just before the lockdown started and I’ve been catching up with the series since then.  I don’t just enjoy the stories themselves – I love how intellectual the Latin and historical references make me feel!

Book Clubs at Home

Channel 4 have recently been doing a Stay at Home Academy in the evenings – Jamie Oliver did a series on cooking in the lockdown, then Kirstie Allsopp had some crafting episodes.  This week is Richard and Judy’s turn – I was thrilled to find out that they are presenting ‘Keep Reading and Carry On’.

I have very much enjoyed the first few episodes.  Of course, I would love for them to be longer so we could see some more in depth discussions of the books but the fact that there is a whole programme dedicated to books on primetime television is wonderful.

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I particularly loved Graham Norton and Louis Theroux’s guest appearances. They both came across as genuinely enthusiastic about the books and I would love to have a bookish chat with either of them.

I have also been loving the bookshelves I have seen in the houses of everyone broadcasting from home.  Stephen Fry has a particularly enviable study.  However, when I watched the BBC’s Big Night In a couple of weeks ago my favourite background was Jason Manford’s – he had a blank wall behind him with pieces of paper pinned up saying, ‘Bookshelves’.  I loved it!