This week I have a great feeling of accomplishment because I finally finished a book I started in (I think) November.
I first picked up The House of the Seven Gables because L M Montgomery raved about it in her journal and I thought that if she liked it I probably would too. I read George Eliot’s Romola for the same reason and that turned out very well so I had high hopes. The book is a bit slow to get started but I was enjoying it and I was definitely invested in the characters.
Then I got to chapter seventeen and it suddenly became very rambling and had a completely different feel to it. I found myself reading sentences several times and still not really taking them in. I kept going but found that the next chapter was even stranger. I finished chapter eighteen one evening, put the book down and didn’t pick it up again for months.
I was so close to the end though that I didn’t want to give up so I did eventually make myself read on. In the very next chapter the narrative reasserted itself and I raced through the rest of the book. I even enjoyed it. It was a very odd experience because apart from those two chapters I thought it was a great book. They were enough though to put me off trying another Nathaniel Hawthorne any time soon!
Before the pandemic I loved going to meetings of my local branch of the Jane Austen Society. They were lovely places to meet like minded people for bookish chats, lunch and plenty of tea. Best of all were the talks we enjoyed – two at every meeting – and we had some great ones. My favourite is probably still the dramatic reading of extracts from Austen’s Juvenilia – it was hilarious – and I also remember one several years ago about William Beckford. I loved Amy Frost’s talk so much that I immediately went and borrowed every book by Beckford I could find in the library.
In fact, Amy Frost spoke at the last meeting I attended – in January last year – and gave another fascinating talk about what is wrong with location in Austen adaptations. Since then of course we have been kept at home. I have enjoyed several online events – including the literary festival hosted by Chawton House – but it has been a few months since the last one I saw. I was therefore delighted to be invited – along with the rest of my branch – to a Zoom meeting hosted by the Scottish branch of the society.
We were determined to do things properly so we set out a nice tea for ourselves and sat down to a talk on Jane Austen and the weather by Katie Halsey. I very much enjoyed listening to it and of course it made me long to read the novels again (it has been maybe two months since I read any Jane Austen – you wouldn’t think I would need more yet!). It was a thoroughly delightful way to spend the afternoon and I am definitely looking forward to the next opportunity to hear talks like this. They might not be quite the same as meeting in person but they are definitely filling an intellectual hole. If you know of any please do let me know!
For the first time in weeks I have picked up a book which isn’t just cosy, familiar comfort reading. It did come from a familiar source though – L M Montgomery mentions The House of the Seven Gables several times in her journals and she seemed to enjoy it a lot so I have been meaning to read it for years.
For some reason, now seemed like the time. I have been immersing myself in her journals once more and they persuaded me to pick it up. I’m only about halfway through at the moment but I can definitely agree that it is a good book.
It’s funny though – it is both exactly what I need to read right now and also not at all what I want. It is a very gentle book which moves slowly with not a great deal of action (the first chapter is entirely given over to the backstory of the house and the family who lives there). So far anyway – for all I know it really picks up in the second half! That is certainly very soothing but it is also not gripping at all so I don’t find myself desperate to pick it up and I am more likely to get distracted by other things.
It is at times like this that I’m grateful I can read more than one book at once. When I have the focus for a slow story I have this one ready, when I need a bit more plot I can pick up something else. Choice is a wonderful thing!
I am always on the lookout for new (to me) cosy crime books. They are just so comforting and the best kind of relaxation so when I heard about the Mystery Bookshop series by V M Burns I had to try it out. It is set in a mystery bookshop after all!
Samantha Washington has long dreamed of owning a mystery bookstore. And as she prepares for the grand opening, she’s realizing another dream–penning a cozy mystery set in England between the wars. While Samantha hires employees and stocks her shelves, her imagination also gets to work as her heroine, Lady Penelope Marsh, long-overshadowed by her beautiful sister Daphne, refuses to lose the besotted Victor Carlston to her sibling’s charms. When one of Daphne’s suitors is murdered in a maze, Penelope steps in to solve the labyrinthine puzzle and win Victor.
In the meantime, however, the unimaginable happens in real life. A shady realtor turns up dead in Samantha’s backyard, and the police suspect her–after all, she might know a thing or two about murder. Aided by her feisty grandmother and an ensemble of enthusiastic retirees, Samantha is determined to close the case before she opens her store. But will she live to conclude her own story when the killer has a revised ending in mind?
I very much enjoyed this book. It is light, easy reading which is perfect right now. The mystery kept me guessing and I especially loved reading about Nana Jo and the girls. I only hope I’m half as active and resourceful as them when I’m their age!
I hadn’t realised that half of the text would be taken up by the crime novel which Sam is writing. That did throw me a bit to start with but I actually really like the way it was woven into the main plot. There were however some aspects of the portrayal of life in 1930s England which grated and I did feel that perhaps some more research could have been done here.
Overall though, I thought it was a fun book and I will definitely be reading more in the series.
The Plot is Murder by V M Burns Publisher: Kensington Publishing ISBN: 9781496711816 RRP: £11.99
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.
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?
Last weekend should have seen the AGM of the Jane Austen Society UK at Chawton House. This year is the 80th birthday of the society and so it would have been quite a special occasion. Of course, for obvious reasons, this couldn’t happen.
Instead, Chawton House hosted an online event which included a tour of the house and a talk about the history of the society which was very interesting. 1940 seems like an odd time to be creating such a society and I can understand why people thought there were more important things going in in the world. It is however an excellent example of keeping calm and carrying on.
The highlight of the day for me though was the selection of birthday wishes from Jane Austen societies around the world. It was very moving and even humbling to see how much people love Jane Austen and her world.
Last week I received a surprise parcel from Macmillan. I had a suspicion as to what it might be but was completely wrong as it turned out to be a beautiful copy of Matthew Oates’ His Imperial Majesty. My first flick through showed me that it has some gorgeous illustrations but I was somewhat sceptical about the review on the front cover from Patrick Barkham – ‘Monumental, transcendent, hilarious.’ This is a natural history of the Purple Emperor butterfly and it is packed full of fascinating information. How could it possibly also be hilarious?
I had to take this picture on a rainy day when not a butterflywas in sight so I made do with a brooch.
It turns out that it can. I am still only partway through (my Mum who doesn’t normally like reading non-fiction was so taken with this book that she borrowed it to read herself) but there are definitely some very funny moments. I particularly enjoyed the account of a meeting with a walker when the author was lying flat on his back looking for butterflies in the trees above him with binoculars.
I love butterflies. Hacking out on the ponies I often see many of them flitting about the hedgerows and although I can identify very few of them they are wonderful to watch. I even have a sketchbook from when I was eight or nine to which I gave the misleading title of Mostly Butterflies. On looking through it I find that there is precisely one butterfly – apparently a Monarch. A more accurate title would have been Mostly Horses but I was obviously very keen on butterflies at the time – even if it was a short time.
Thank you to Macmillan for the free review copy. I am looking forward to reading the rest of it when I get it back!
A conversation at work about Jane Austen adaptations (I still need to see the new Emma!) led me to re-watch Lost in Austen over the weekend. I haven’t seen it since it first came out but was very happy to find that I still thought it was excellent.
I love that Amanda is so involved in the world of Pride and Prejudice that the people and manners in her real life seem brash and even vulgar by comparison. I too have wished that I could escape to Jane Austen’s world.
It got me thinking though – if I really could change places with someone in a book, who would it be? Of course, Elizabeth Bennet is a good choice and I can definitely see myself in the world of Pride and Prejudice. Betsy Ray would be another – I would so love to spend time in Deep Valley, go to some skating parties and experience Sunday night lunch at the Ray’s house. Perhaps the ultimate though is Anne Shirley. I have wanted to go to Avonlea ever since I first read the book and, of course, Gilbert would be there too.
The only flaw in the plan is that I would have to actually swap places with these characters when what I really want to do is spend time with them. I want to explore Avonlea with Anne and I definitely would love to talk to all three of them – plus so many others. Switching places isn’t the answer. I need a new plan!
I have been reading Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide with a lovely group of people on Instagram and have been thoroughly enjoying it.
I haven’t read any Christie for a while and it has been years since I read this one. So much so that I genuinely had no idea whodunnit – which makes a nice change for me when I’m re-reading a book. This was a good one too – a long list of suspects who all seemed pretty plausible. Early on I did single out the love interests and write them off as suspects but then I remembered that Christie is not Ngaio Marsh or Georgette Heyer. Anyone could have done it – including either or even both of the love interests – so they went back on the list.
In the end, I only guessed a few pages before the reveal which is always satisfying. I like to be able to work out the solution before the detective but it’s not so great when you work out the murderer right at the beginning of the book!
It was a lot of fun reading this with the others. There are always so many things which come up in the chats that I just don’t notice for myself when I’m reading and it is lovely to share my ideas with other people. We might not be able to have in person book clubs at the moment but this is just as good (especially as my book club would never read a lot of the books I would like to choose!).
In our continuing efforts to make our weekends different to the rest of the week, we have taken a picnic lunch out to the field almost every Sunday since lockdown started. Our first one made me feel like Judy from Daddy-Long-Legs. Like Judy and Jervis, we carried a table out to sit under the trees.
Our next attempt was right in the midst of my Swallows and Amazons re-read and so I was much more ambitious. I called up everything I could remember from the books and all of my old Girl Guide knowledge to build a campfire and cook our lunch over that. I was quite proud of my success – and also surprised about how relatively easy it was. We repeated the exercise on another Sunday and it is such a fun way to cook lunch, even if you do end up smelling strongly of smoke!
I even did some rummaging and found the flag I made when I was first reading Swallows and Amazons as a child. You can’t really tell but it is a sparrowhawk flag made to look like Swallow’s and I was very proud of it. It made our picnic feel like a proper camp too.
Having eaten lunch, we spent the rest of the afternoons just sitting with tea and books. It is the most restful way to spend a day and I always ended up feeling incredibly calm and peaceful. I shall be sorry to lose these days as I return to work but am determined to find some way to fit them into my life anyway.